Cinema News and Reviews for the Rest of Us

On DVD: ‘Bluebeard’

Hard Learning

The centuries-old legend of the uxoricidal nobleman Bluebeard is a chillingly instructive one, aimed at sexually subjugating young girls before they even reach maturation.  Just do as your told and restrain your curiosity, it says, and you won’t get your proverbial (or literal) throat cut.  It should come as no surprise that prolific French director Catherine Breillat chose the legend for one of her sly riffs on traditional male/female relationship mores.  But what is surprising is the way she attacks it in her restrained and beautiful film, not altogether stripping the sexually repressive subtext and managing to avoid being too instructive herself.

Instead, she uses narratives within narratives to examine how rules are instilled in us at young ages.  We see a young girl reading her less precocious older sister the Bluebeard legend in their attic in the 1950s and we cut back and forth from to see the 17th century dramatization of the story, with a preternaturally beautiful Lola Creton playing the newest in a long line of the nobleman’s wives, who moves to his castle and must eventually confront his murderous secret.  Breillat hems pretty close to the legend most of the time, but injects enough changes to make the dynamics more interesting, to make her story more relevant in an age when, thankfully, the pat instruction of the old narrative would instill less fear than righteous rage.  The young bride in this story is less an innocent girl than an independent-minded young woman, able to achieve a certain dominance over the hulking Bluebeard.  This isn’t done to create something so simple as a feminist reprisal against the male autocrat, but more to illustrate how maturation and curiosity about what rules to follow and which ones not to can be a dangerous enterprise in any era.  It’s clear that to Breillat, the quest for knowledge is worth the risk.

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