Given its mixture of sexuality, mystery, and abrupt violence, it isn’t surprising that Charles Perrault’s story “Bluebeard” held a childhood fascination for director Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, Romance). Given how concerned Breillat’s movies are with investigating primal urges through a string of metaphoric scenarios, they could almost be seen as fairy tales themselves, albeit of a fairly dense and recondite sort.
Breillat’s Bluebeard is effectively two interwoven stories: a relatively straightforward retelling of Perrault’s story, and a present-day thread in which two sisters (Marilou Lopes-Benites and Lola Giovannetti) read from Perrault’s book in an attic. But interpreting one as fairy tale and one as reality—or the contemporary story as a frame for the ancient one—is getting things precisely wrong: Each story is as true as the other. In a sense, the Bluebeard story itself is less important than the girls’ attraction to it. Modeling their interaction on her own childhood, Breillat casts the younger, more forthright sister as the narrator, toying with her older sister’s mixture of fear and fascination. Their eyes widen and their throats clench as the lure of Bluebeard’s forbidden chamber sucks them in.
The fairy-tale sisters resemble their present-day counterparts, although in the present-day story, the dark-haired sister (Lola Créton) is the headstrong one, while the redhead (Daphné Baiwir) recoils from the gargantuan Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas). Removed from their religious school after their father dies, the sisters and their mother face ruin unless one of the girls marries the notorious Bluebeard, whose many wives have disappeared without a trace.
The story progresses apace toward its blood-strewn chamber of horrors, but Breillat’s Bluebeard is almost benign, a loving husband who carries out his gory punishments with a tinge of regret. He isn’t too smart to be manipulated by his teenage bride, who picks a bedroom too small for her husband’s massive frame to squeeze into. Nor are their appetites so different: They tear with equal relish into a massive hunk of animal flesh that looks as if it’s had only a passing acquaintance with the cooking fire.
As with Breillat’s 2007 period piece The Last Mistress, Bluebeard is subdued and unadorned, almost plain. The decision to give both time frames the same look is conceptually of a piece, but it wouldn’t hurt if both were a shade more interesting to look at. But steering clear of fairy-tale frippery throws the whole piece into unfamiliar territory, which is no doubt just how Breillat wants it.