Given her penchant for unflinching, occasionally hazardous accounts of girlishness, it was only a matter of time before Catherine Breillat tackled the Bluebeard story. The immediate function of folklore and fables is to forewarn children of the violent world they’ll inherit (if they’re lucky). Devotees of Breillat’s oeuvre will no doubt find considerable overlap between the incendiary subject matter of her eponymous 2009 adaptation and the subcutaneous hum of predation that populates even the most beloved bedtime stories.
This notorious fairytale, made famous in the late 17th century by fellow Frenchman Charles Perrault, uses a whiff of “medieval” barbarity to spin a cautionary yarn about the perils of feminine curiosity. As legend has it, local nobleman Bluebeard (né Barbe-Bleue), a widower six times over, encounters considerable obstacles on the hunt for his next bride. Having run afoul of the townsfolk, whose daughters mysteriously disappear after wedding his Lordship, Bluebeard sets his sights on the younger daughter of a recent widow in dire financial straits.
Breillat cleverly sets the story as a tale-within-a-tale, opening in the 1950s and narrated throughout by a pair of young sisters recounting the Bluebeard legend in an old farmhouse. The sweetness of this framing device never edges into the saccharine, but rather provides a welcome respite from the story’s grislier moments. Sisterhood is a secret ingredient separating Breillat’s 21st-century iteration of Bluebeard from its more traditional predecessors. Played with an easy sophistication by Lola Créton and Daphné Baiwir, Marie-Catherine and her older sister Anne share a worldliness beyond their years. Marie-Catherine approaches her doomed nuptials with an unnerving combination of gamesmanship and guile, and Breillat makes excellent use of the contrast between the bride’s delicate, bird-like features and Dominique Thomas’s hulking shagginess. There’s an erotic component to this disparity, to be sure, but Bluebeard errs on the side of tenderness, planting and poignantly nurturing the seedlings of inevitable betrayal.
Bluebeard screens this afternoon and tonight, November 21, at the French Institute: Alliance Française as part of the series “Film Fantastique: Lust and Blood.”