For over a decade now, Catherine Breillat has been labeled too feminist to be fair in her films. Although I cannot attest to or deny these somewhat slanderous criticisms, I can say that in her latest she displays nothing if not an equal respect for both men and women. Not only does she not condemn what could have easily been contrived merely as an untenable lady killer in Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), but she decidedly gives him a very vivid and thorough backstory. One that rationalizes the antagonist’s actions and coos his motivations as those of a melancholic soul and not those of a blood thirst animal. Truly Breillat has a vendetta against man in making Bluebeard the most intelligent, wealthy and overall emotionally identifiable character in the film. Truly.
Though the film takes a few minutes before getting underway — though the darkly humorous diatribe that depicts the Catholic church as a cold and greedy institution that opens the film isn’t bad — once it does it becomes a non-stop sprint until its recondite, yet satisfying conclusion. Cinema dealing in the baroque has never been this good and seldom as palpable. Only Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac can be considered as simple and even though a lot of Bluebeard feels like Breillat playing Bresson, it overshadows Bresson’s take on Lancelot in every department. And I’m a big advocate of Robert Bresson.
The film is designed the way many other films have before it, but with a neat quirk. At first, we believe that this is a film about the lives of two teenage sisters trying to find stability in their lives after the death of their breadwinning father. They are Anne (Daphné Baiwir) and Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton); Anne being the melancholic eldest at about 17 and Marie-Catherine being the precocious optimist at 15.
Then we jump to more contemporary times with two even younger sisters in Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti); Catherine is a fearless and proud 6 year old with an intellect that surpasses her age and Marie-Anne is an anxious 8. Eventually these sisters come across one of Catherine’s most favourite tales called — you guessed it — Bluebeard, which plays into the anxiety of Marie-Anne, but because Catherine is adorable and because each party is equally as bored, Marie-Anne concedes her objection and pursues reading the story with her sister.
We interchange between the two stories every so often and eventually we find that the narrative is being driven by the perspective of the children. This adds a lot to what began as a straightforward story because not only do we see how Bluebeard is perceived during the era of his reign, but also the trepidation that he causes in more recent generations. It also shows how the disposition of youth has changed. Interjections such as these have oft felt like hamfisted endeavors (an example that I’ve recently seen would be The Legend of 1900), whereas what Breillat does here cannot be considered as anything less than a dexterous divulge into the pathos of what could have easily been unnecessary characters.
The film becomes most appealing when Marie-Catherine is picked by Bluebeard to be his next wife. With her being wed to the large, bluebearded royalty her life takes on two new connotations. One is that she’s come into immediate riches and never has to worry about being poor ever again, lest she be unfaithful to her husband. The other is that her life is in constant danger as Bluebeard is notorious for killing his wives just prior to their first anniversary. The first we experience first hand with Marie-Catherine being a constant joy; she even loves Bluebeard in the way all 15 year old girls love boys. The second grows to feel more like a mean rumor spread about the village about the man because he’s different than them. He’s depicted as a gentle giant; the kind of guy who intimidates you at first, but has nothing but the utmost respect for everybody and who reveres love and friendship more so than he does his wealth.
And this is where the film will strike a chord with most of its audience – with its heart. Every scene – and I mean every scene – adds to the intimate atmosphere and companion-cherishing emotion of this feature. The acting expounds this philosophy best. Although Lola Creton’s Marie-Catherine is as delightful and lovable as Poppy from Happy-Go-Lucky and Marilou Lopes-Benites’ inversely cynical Catherine the most contemptible child in cinema (not even Damien from The Omen can compare), it’s Dominique Thomas’ performance as the titular character that most effusively demonstrates the emotion of the feature and because of this is of “best performance of the year” caliber.
His laconic approach toward the crestfallen romantic is entirely heartbreaking. And when, at the end, you see his disappointment and therefore incentive to do what must be done, there isn’t the tiniest tinge of cynicism; only that of more disappointment and of once again abandoned hope. He’s absolutely heartbreaking and his performance will resonate with anyone who has felt the cold kiss of betrayal one too many times.
In addition to the heart-string plucking performances, there are a handful of scenes that will devastate and haunt. One of them, in particular, defines two characters so wholly that for them to not speak any other words for the remainder of the film would be perfectly sufficient as you’d have accumulated a vast amount of knowledge of them from this brief scene. Like a few other scenes, it’s one where Catherine and Marie-Anne find themselves quarreling, taking the focus of the film away from the actual story of Bluebeard. In this scene, Catherine treats Marie-Anne to a diatribe that boils down to “You’re stupid, you’re unfortunate, I’m smarter than you and I always will be,” but it’s said with such causticity that it’ll tear you apart and make you want to assault a child. And not because she’s annoying, but because she hit a chord with you on a psychological level. Well played, Breillat.
Like Bluebeard’s only wish of finding someone truly trustworthy to shower with his dying love, I only wish that this film were longer so that I could more avidly shower it with mine. From extravagant production values to the eclectic ensemble, everything is downplayed so that, at the same time, everything is manageable, which is unlike many other “period pieces” that decidedly impress upon you their budget. Here it’s because Breillat doesn’t wish to push any singular aspect – not unlike your local drug dealer does “his new product” – that her latest is easily digested. Don’t worry about that disconsolate feeling in your stomach after you’ve watched Bluebeard; it isn’t indigestion, it’s your heart sinking. You can thank Thomas and co. for that bleak sensation.