That drop of menstrual blood at the beginning of The Runaways recurs in Bluebeard, Catherine Breillat’s adaptation of the 17th-century Charles Perrault fairytale. Both blood images are bold, modern signs of female coming of age, but Breillat, like The Runaways’ director Floria Sigismondi, is also advancing a consciousness of female being that rarely makes it to the screen. (This is especially surprising—and welcome—coming right after Kathryn Bigelow gets rewarded for fitting into the status quo rather than challenging it.) The best way to understand Breillat’s very free fairytale adaptation might be to appreciate its aggressive, almost punk-rock, impudence: Breillat uses female blood for an extraordinary, unnerving finale that climaxes the film’s confrontation with erotic myths that are taught to us—via religion and art—since childhood.
Breillat interweaves several narratives: the predicament of two pubescent girls who are expelled from a convent when their father dies; a flashback to their childhood sibling rivalry—especially when the youngest sister frightens the eldest by reading Perrault’s Bluebeard; and the Bluebeard legend itself, in which young Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton) marries the fearsome aristocrat Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), who has a reputation for killing his wives.
As visualized through Breillat’s imagination, these stories intersect to create an experience different from fairytale wonderment. Breillat generates intellectual tumult by opposing period stories with contemporary awareness (close to the way Jacques Demy evoked a realistic Middle Ages in his folkloric films Donkey Skin and The Pied Piper). This allows her to revisit favorite themes: sexual development (as in A Very Young Girl); sexual mythology (as in Romance); the anger and self-loathing of sisterhood (as in Fat Girl); the literal construction and personal interpretation of fiction (as in Sex Is Comedy); plus the fear and desire that define sexual compulsion (as in Anatomy of Hell).
Breillat’s approach distinguishes her as a provocative filmmaker—not always satisfactory but always genuine. You can measure contemporary moral consciousness by her fearless analysis of sexual narrative, whether dealing in personal fantasy or commercial pornography. (Breillat cleverly “transgressed” the latter by eliciting a genuine emotional characterization from European porn star Rocco Siffredi in Anatomy of Hell). In Bluebeard there are elements of both. Breillat explores the contradictions within erotic and social drives. Marie-Catherine’s greed, lust and curiosity go beyond ideas of innocence but Breillat is uninterested in the notion of simple victimization. The urge toward degradation—even oblivion—is part of the fascination she finds in the appeal of fairytales and the allure of sex.
For the cinema-savvy, Breillat’s film may also recall the opening sequence of Brian DePalma’s 1976 Carrie, where menstrual blood evokes shame and vengeance. Breillat dares what most male directors of female fear and desire have resisted: Jean Cocteau sublimated eroticism in his classic 1946 film of Beauty and the Beast and Neil Jordan brought wit and splendor to A Company of Wolves, his 1984 film of Angela Carter’s postmodern literary deconstruction of fairytales. The scene where Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard both gnaw on a leg of animal flesh bluntly depicts the animalistic nature of men and women—appetites that join and separate each other.
Breillat’s tough-mindedness shows in her candid sexual inquiry. Dispensing with fairytale charm, she offers adult skepticism instead: Thomas’ imposing physical brutishness when Bluebeard disrobes and Marie-Catherine’s mind games with him that parallel the tension among the book-reading siblings. It all goes to turning the tragic inevitability of Perrault’s fable into a satire of human folly. Several great tableaux in Bluebeard (shot with surreal clarity by Vilko Filac) approach romanticism and then wind up chillingly realistic; they prove Breillat’s concern with the imaginary and with sexual and political mythology that dominates female experience.
Directed by Catherine Breillat
At IFC Center
Running Time: 80 min.
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