by Glenn Heath, Jr. Film Horizon Line

Bluebeard — Catherine Breillat

July 7, 2010

In wildly different ways, Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl and The Last Mistress envision the collective invasion of the female psyche by male oppressors. In both, Breillat unravels sexual power by illustrating how her heroines battle against these social affronts and how they fall victim to them, often ending with jarring moments of violence. However, Breillat reverses this trend with Bluebeard, a disjointed and diabolical period piece that balances two pairings of sisters and their respective attempts to transcend the domineering male guise.

The first storyline unfolds in a wildly exaggerated vision of the Renaissance era, concerning a pair of sisters traversing an uncertain social landscape. When their father passes away unexpectedly, Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton) and older sister Anne (Daphne Baiwir) return home to their widowed mother, forced into the poor house and social ridicule. During their long carriage ride home, the girls pass by the towering castle of wealthy and brutal aristocrat Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), and Marie-Catherine asks why such a structure would be built. Her sister answers, “To fend off invasions.” Marie-Catherine smiles, and the girls continue home. The young vixen already understands how the tactics of seduction and violence overlap.

When Bluebeard later hears of the girl’s plight he proposes one of the sisters become his wife. Despite knowing Bluebeard has murdered his previous wives, the ambitious Marie-Catherine eagerly agrees to marry him. Almost immediately, her meek and slender physique begins playing tricks on the man’s perception, and Breillat stages a slow coup d’etat, subverting gender politics and class distinctions. The slow burn of revenge is something to behold, ending with a final shot confronting the fragility and brutality that seep through the castle walls.

Bluebeard appears to be a straightforward cinematic drama on the surface, but as is the case with all her recent films, Breillat deconstructs surface-level expectations of genre and character. As a sly aesthetic choice, Breillat tells the story of Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard through the subjective POVs of another pair of sisters living in the 1950s — and also named Marie-Catherine and Anne. Set entirely in an attic, the girls find a copy of Bluebeard the novel and read long portions aloud to each other. Both represent a disturbing parallel to the literary doppelgangers, playing out their relationship in much the same way as the characters on the page. They use prose as weapons against each other, finally acting out the novel’s ending in their own harrowing way.

Breillat superbly weaves together both stories, juxtaposing the nuances of each to potently represent her auteurist themes. Taking emotional and physical control brings extreme power, but for both sets of sisters these actions also wreak havoc. The true horror comes in deciding to accept the consequences of their actions. As a portrait of gender invasion, Breillat’s Bluebeard paints a dynamic picture of social cost/reward, a sometimes terrifying and always fluid gender chess match no matter the characters or the time frame.