Retelling of ‘Bluebeard’ is a sisters story
Two adolescent girls in wimples are summoned to see the mother superior of the convent school they attend in 17th-century France. Their father having suddenly died, they are to be sent home.
Two contemporary girls in pinafores, younger than the first pair, sneak to the attic to read a story. It’s “Bluebeard,’’ Charles Perrault’s fairy tale about a hairy-faced man who kills his brides. The first pair of girls are characters in that story: Bluebeard’s soon-to-be final wife, Marie-Catherine, and her sister, Anne.
Catherine Breillat’s coolly feminist retelling of Perrault (she both directed and did the adaptation) cuts back and forth between the girls: one pair living and being read about, the other living and reading. A simple device, the parallel structure freshens and enlarges the familiar story precisely because Breillat doesn’t put too much weight on it. Or at least she doesn’t until something even more momentous happens (or does it?) in the modern-day attic than in the one in Bluebeard’s castle.
Breillat’s film can seem at times like a far less opaque version of another story set in the 17th century about sex and power: Peter Greenaway’s “The Draughtman’s Contract’’ — and it isn’t just the pineapple at each end of Mr. and Mrs. Bluebeard’s groaning board.
Unlike Greenaway, Breillat leaves the sex well beneath the surface. That’s in keeping with the unhurried calm of her approach, which favors long takes and medium shots. Greenaway’s unhurried, too, but in the pursuit of painterliness. Breillat’s film, although quite handsome, is much more concerned with behavior than appearances. So it’s power she concentrates on.
The girls’ powerlessness is unmistakable, from their dismissal from school (with their father dead, they can no longer afford tuition) to the dilemma posed by their being without a dowry to how big Bluebeard is (Dominique Thomas makes Gerard Depardieu look undersized) versus how tiny Marie-Catherine seems. He looks like a potentate on his marital throne.
Tiny is as tiny does, though, and we know who wins out in the end. Lola Creton, as Marie-Catherine, is both moving and unaffected. She makes you see why Bluebeard, as he looks appraisingly over a field full of prospective spouses (talk about power), singles her out. Marilou Lopes-Benites, who plays the younger child in the other pair, is just as good. At once adorable and indomitable, she could hold her own in a Flannery O’Connor story. Her young heroines confront things more fearful than anything in a fairy tale, after all. A good man is hard to find? Yes, indeed, though finding a good husband — in the vicinity of Bluebeard’s castle, anyway — is that much harder.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.