Saturday, October 10, 2009

NYFF: 'Bluebeard's' Kindness Is His Undoing

Lola Creton as Marie-Catherine in "Bluebeard." Photo courtesy of The Film Society of Lincoln Center/Pyramide Films

ONE wonders why the French director, Catherine Breillat waited so long to offer her version of the French fairy tale, “Bluebeard ("La Barbe bleue”), for it contains three themes she visits often: sibling rivalry, gender conflict and sexuality. It, too, was a childhood favorite, with which she tormented her own older sibling.

“ I was five or six; she was a year older,” she said in director’s notes about the film. “I used to read ‘Bluebeard’ out loud to her, terrified in advance myself but invigorated by the fact that I knew (and hoped) that she, the older one, would break down and beg me, in tears, to stop.”

Breillat’s engaging, witty and somewhat disturbing take on the tale of the undesirable aristrocrat with the ugly beard and several missing wives opens with two modern-day sisters reading the story in an attic, a place the director says is fertile “for dreaming and for playing hide and seek with one’s childhood fears.” The young actresses give performance that are both tender and hilarious as feuding siblings. They are far more childlike than their counterparts in the story who have serious things on their mind after their father dies, leaving them and their mother penniless and consigned to a life of crushing poverty. True to the tale, the younger of the two sisters, Marie-Catherine – played with great maturity and self-possession by Lola Creton – marries Breillat’s kindly orge, a restrained Dominique Thomas.

Referencing her three themes, Breillat (“Romance”/“Anatomy of Hell”) does have something interesting – if not so out of the ordinary – to say here and she does it often enough with an offbeat sense of humor. In the fairy tale, the sisters are often fighting but when the younger one is ready to leave for her new home, the heartbreak for both is palpable and rather adult. Their modern-day counterparts are often needling each other with some rather mature banter, but in the end the younger sibling expresses very childlike horror at the fate of her older sister.

I could not imagine that even Breillat would dare film sex scenes between Thomas’ behemoth Bluebeard and Creton’s tiny Marie-Cahtherine, though it’s implied in a chaste way. Instead, she makes a statement about the crucial role that desirability plays in determining whether a dowryless female and her family can escape poverty’s grip. Bluebeard’s surrogate extends Marie-Catherine and Anne an offer of a lifetime. Sexuality is strongly implied, too, in the barbaric way Bluebeard eats – hands grabbing at body parts, his devouring food so much so that some spills out of his mouth. Breillat’s camera captures it in closeups of Bluebeard’s bejeweled vestements and fingers and in Marie-Catherine's purity. Slightly pornographic is the scene showing the duck running around with its head cut off.

In the battle of the sexes, the child bride clearly has the upperhand over her groom, despite their David and Goliath size differential. No sooner than she arrives at the chateau after her wedding, she’s making demands. She doesn’t want a small bed at the foot of Bluebeard’s in their bed chamber. “Am I a dog that I should sleep at your feet,” she asks, insisting on her own bedroom. The hovel she chooses for herself is off limits. No one must enter, she informs Bluebeard who is too large to do so anyway. “Never,” she says with gravity. She wins the ultimate battle, however, when she outwits him to save her life. They are two gladiators locked in a very civilized exchange. It's bloodless, until the end.

It is clear that Breillat enjoyed herself with this one.

For a complete list of 2009 New York Film Festival entries and ticket/general information, visit:

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