REVIEW: Barbe Bleue [Bluebeard] [2009]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 80 minutes | Release Date: October 6th, 2009 (France)
Studio: Arte / Strand Releasing
Director(s): Catherine Breillat
Writer(s): Catherine Breillat / Charles Perrault (fairy tale)

“Then an ogress eats them”

By intertwining the Charles Perrault fairy tale La Barbe bleue with present-day sisters on their own forbidden journey to the attic housing their copy of that exact story, Catherine Breillat is able to visually captivate, humor, and ultimately shock her audience. In Barbe Bleue [Bluebeard], the writer/director decides to update the fantasy half by evolving her beastly villain from bloodthirsty monster to a misunderstood aristocrat hoping beyond hope that he can find a woman who will truly love him. While she plays with the story in her adaptation, so does the youngest of the sisters, using her over-active imagination to bring in ogres and homosexual love, a slyly innocent smile on her face to contrast the frustrated head-shaking of her more grounded sibling. Perrault’s stories—the creator of Mother Goose—all had an underlying moral or lesson to learn and Breillat does as well. To her, however, violence and tragedy is masked by fantasy since it is brutal and at times shockingly unexpected and without meaning. So, while the fictional character Marie-Catherine attempts to postpone her fate at the hand of Bluebeard, the young attic-bound Marie-Anne discovers just how unyielding death can be.

I have never seen any of Breillat’s previous work, but quick research exposed how she has never been one to shy away from violence’s unpredictability. Supposedly, right before the premiere screening of À ma soeur! [Fat Girl] in Toronto, she warned the audience that they would be fascinated by its brutal, explosive shock. The moment she spoke of was met with reactionary talk of how arbitrary the violence was, yet later proved to be a pre-emptive commentary on how all tragedy is—just two days later the world saw the World Trade Center towers fall. So, watching these two youngsters sneak up into the attic to explore while their mother is out may not seem odd to those familiar with the director’s work. It is a seemingly innocuous action that will lull you into a false sense of security, cognizant to the fact that the real tragedy would be occurring in the parallel plotline pertaining to Bluebeard and his wife. It isn’t until the very end of Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti) and Catherine’s (Marilou Lopes-Benites) arc that we awaken to the reality of fate’s cruel touch. Convenient timing can be written into stories, saving the heroine at the demise of her oppressor, but in the real world you can’t cheat death.

The film begins straightforward until we discover the disorienting convention at use. Watching Anne (Daphné Baiwir) and Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton)—the former older and responsible while the latter a youthful free spirit—have the news delivered about their father’s death, it appears we will be experiencing their journey onwards. Upon their trek home, however, a cut occurs to bring us into the lives of Marie-Anne and Catherine, (stand-ins for the director and her sister who read the tale as children), entering climbing their stairs, the youngest unafraid as her mother didn’t forbid them entering the room and the eldest trepidatious, not wanting to get in trouble. They find the book with Bluebeard, Marie-Anne desperately wanting to read it as her confidence overshadows the older sister’s penchant for crying at story’s end, even though she knows what happens. So, they continue reading aloud, pausing to interject and exaggerate, (and in one instance Marie-Anne puts herself into the fable), while Anne and Marie-Catherine live it, returning home to poverty fatherless and having the ugly, blue-bearded giant next door come calling for a bride. Marie-Catherine, always wanting to better her older sister, volunteers despite the enormous age difference, falling in love with the man others feared as a cold-blooded killer.

The Bluebeard of this tale (Dominique Thomas) isn’t the homicidal maniac of folklore, finding a bride to murder once she betrays him. Instead, he completely falls for this woman, deciding to not give his little gold key—able to unlock a forbidden basement room—leaving her only with riches to invite her friends for parties while away. He trusts her implicitly and when he returns enjoys a time of great love and companionship. It isn’t until the second business trip that he tests her with the magical key to prove her loyalty, but the pride of affluence had given way to vanity by this point, curiosity now trumping her old feelings of contentment. She needs to see what her husband is hiding, much like the little girls in France enter the attic to rummage through family treasures unencumbered by their parents. Catherine, no matter how humble and good, can’t resist her sister’s exuberant fervor for fun, going along for the ride, not fearful for her own safety, but for that of the little girl. It’s always the spontaneous one, after all, who meets her maker, right? Well, sometimes caution isn’t enough to save you from death’s fickle nature.

Bluebeard, then, crescendos in its fantasy, working towards the inevitable dagger of kill or be killed, while the girls reading along to what we’re watching remain calm and collected. Thomas is a mountain of a man and could easily have played a one-dimensional monster biding time until murdering his wife, but instead is given a heart, making the role a touching portrayal of a man seeking true love beyond wealth and notoriety. Getting to its end becomes more a heartbreaking journey as a result, increasing the tension to make us unsure whether he’ll do the deed. Créton gives her Marie-Catherine enough cunning to raise the question either way; her intellect and sisterly bond hopefully able to save herself from the situation at hand. You never want to lose yourself in their story, though, because you’ll miss the great work by Lopes-Benites and Giovannetti harmlessly playing at home. The sibling dynamic is authentic and you will fall in love with the two as they joke and let their imaginations run wild. Lost in their security and captivated by the otherworldly feel of Bluebeard’s castle, the last minutes will jar you. If Giovannetti’s final reaction to the camera and Créton’s silently symbolic conclusion tell us anything, it’s that the obvious is not always the answer.

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