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Movie Review of Bluebeard (2009)

Updated on February 24, 2013

Bluebeard, or 'Le Barbe Bleu,' is provocative French film director Catherine Breillat's version of the classic fairytale Sleeping Beauty. Keeping in line with her previous work like Anatomy of Hell, her version has a feminist spin, exploring women's limited options in a medieval world. The innately talented young Lola Créton gives a dazzling performance as Marie-Catherine, the latest wife of the sinister Bluebeard. After the death of her father, Marie-Catherine sees an opportunity to become Bluebeard's wife. Lured by his wealth, she convinces Bluebeard by impressing him with her fearlessness.

Don't expect the thrilling high-budget special effects of other fairytale adaptations like the Hollywood version of Snow White and the Huntsman or even the distracting subpar computer graphics of the recent version of Red Riding Hood starring Amanda Seyfried. This movie relies on character relationships, excellent performances, and virtuoso cinematography to enthrall its viewers, not bad or dazzling cgs.

It's refreshing to see a film as immaculately composed as Blue Beard. Breillat's careful shot choices, cuts, and camera directions are reminiscent of an old masterpiece like John Cocteau's La belle et la bête and also seem to rely on a vast knowledge of pictorial composition derived from paintings. Her use of color is also exquisite, and helps set the tone of each scene, particularly that of suppressed lust and potential danger. Breillat's talent and knowledge make magic out of a small budget. A relentless craftsman, Breillat also wrote the screenplay for the movie.

The only downfall is a framing device of two children reading the story together. The device is completely unnecessary and since no emotional connection is established with the two girls due to the short duration of their scenes, the climax lacks emotional impact and is only superficially horrific. The soundtrack is minimal and related to the time period, doing little to help the movie which mostly relies on visuals. Due to the visual and risqué nature of Breillat's work, her films are little-known in the U.S. except among art school students.

However, the movie still leaves the viewer satisfied due to a shocking and haunting final scene. Breillat was motivated to make the movie because Bluebeard was her favorite fairytale when she was young, despite her recognition that Bluebeard was one of the first serial killers mentioned in a story, by far predating the sensational news pieces on Jack the Ripper.

Bluebeard is a French fairytale that was recorded by Charles Perrault in 1697. Many believe the titular character was based on Gilles de Rais, a French knight known to kill children who lived during the 15th century. Rais took up serial killing after retiring from military life, his other hobby being occultism, particularly demon summoning. He may have committed hundreds of murders, but as more and more children went missing he was eventually tried and hanged. Apparently medieval justice was more efficient than the derided London police who failed to identify Jack the Ripper.

Another element explored in the movie is the relationship between sisters, which is often that of rivalry, a favorite theme of Breillat's which she also touched upon in Fat Girl. Marie-Catherine is jealous of her beautiful, talented older sister and is delighted at the opportunity of marrying Bluebeard. She gets a new dress for the occasion, a room of her own, and gets to eat a virtual feast every day for dinner. Most importantly, though, she gets someone's undivided attention, that of Bluebeard, at least for a while. Breillat has openly stated that she believes it is the secret desire of any younger sister to be completely rid of her older sister.

In fact, Marie-Catherine's craving for attention is ultimately her downfall when she cannot bare being alone while Bluebeard is away on business. She disobeys him by using the key on the secret room and unveiling his dark, bloody, secret. Here, graphic violence functions as a revelation.

Also adding depth to the movie is the attempt to humanize Bluebeard. Marie-Catherine sees how Bluebeard is trapped and has little choice in his actions. This representation of Bluebeard contrasts other film adaptations and literary retellings by not sensationalizing his cruelty. Breillat has a talent for portraying the true complexity of situations and avoiding narrative clichés.

The film deviates from Breillat's previous work in its lack of explicit sex, which is usually central to her work . The whole point of her film The Last Mistress was to sexualize the historical film. The ages of her young actresses prevented this in Bluebeard. They were too young to participate in such scenes in France, yet good enough that she wanted to use them anyway. However, sexuality is still implied in a symbolic, haunting way.

Breillat continues to pursue her interest in fairytales with her rendition of Sleeping Beauty, and wishes to go on to create a trilogy, but she has no idea which fairytale would be the third one yet.


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