Saturday, March 20, 2010

Catherine Breillat's "Bluebeard"

I recently saw Catherine Breillat’s brilliant new version of the Bluebeard story, entitled “Bluebeard,” and I thought that it was one of her best films yet. The story has two levels--on one, we see a subtle and beautifully shot version of the fairytale, and in the other we watch two young sisters in more or less modern times romp through a forbidden attic, with the younger sister (named Catherine) eventually tormenting her older sister by reading the Bluebeard story. Interestingly, though, the modern story is not set up as a frame for the fairytale: instead, the Bluebeard story both begins and ends the film. And by doing so the two stories are given equal weight, with the fairytale seeming every bit as real as the realist narrative. There is also some fascinating blending between the two narratives. The two sisters in the fairytale echo the two in the modern story, with one being impetuous, defiant, and red-haired, and the other being contemplative and sensitive and dark-haired. And yet Breillat undercuts this a bit in one sequence where the red-haired child in the modern story suddenly becomes the dark-haired teenager in the fairytale--and right at a pivotal moment in the film too.

I’ve read a few different takes on the ending, none of them wholly satisfying. (I won’t go into detail about it, except to say that it is one of those few surprise endings that really is a surprise.) In her review of the film in Cineaste, Maria Garcia suggests that it has to do with Breillat’s sense that it is easier for girls and women to triumphant in fairytales than in the real world, and while I think she makes a good point, I also think the very fact Breillat gives these two narratives such equal weight implies that she is trying examine how the world of the imagination actually works, with the gorgeously disturbing final image implying that the imagination has powers over even such things as death and terror. The plainchant music that plays during this scene implies such an almost religious sense of the imaginative powers. (Breillat is sometimes compared to Genet, and the final scene of “Bluebeard” really does show how much the two have in common.)


“Romance” and “Anatomy of Hell” remain my two favorite Breillat films, though, and the reason I like them has less to do with their ideas about gender (which at times are somewhat pretentious, with certain grandiose notions of Woman and Man going unquestioned) and more to do with the ghostly, borderline monastic atmosphere in those movies. The bareness of some of the rooms echoes the lack of expression on the actor’s faces. There’s an element of Beckett and Bergman about some of her work: she strips things down to make them more visceral.

Something that doesn’t get mentioned often about her films is that their color schemes frequently have a washed-out aspect, with an emphasis on grays and whites and browns, and walls are frequently bare, with maybe a single picture or crucifix on them. When red does appear, as in the famous menstrual blood scenes in “Anatomy of Hell,” it tends to be a shocking red, an unreal red (somewhat like the weirdly fake color of the blood in “Taxi Driver”). I agree with those critics who say that her dialogue--at least as it is presented in subtitles--tends to be stiff, and that her actors are frequently leaden. But those aspects somehow make sense in Breillat's universe. All of her characters are puppets, playthings of the gods (whether those gods be desire or rage or terror), and their leadenness makes them seem perpetually traumatized by that fact. They have the edgy calmness of people that have been shell-shocked…


Blogger Kate Zimmerman said...

i love angela carter's treatment of bluebeard in her bloody chamber, making the new bride actually an agent of her own eroticism, also drawn in a way to the bluebeard.

now whenever i think of breillat i think of kate durbin's cycle of poems in the ravenous audience on breillat.

i think fat girl is my favorite breillat the horror fairytale ending in the woods

10:13 AM  

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