Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review - Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue)

After a career spent shocking audiences with the sexual explicitness of her work, Catherine Breillat's The Last Mistress and her latest film Bluebeard indicate the development of a mellower sensibility. This is certainly the tamest film she has made to date, but the same themes Breillat has always been fascinated by are still present, they're just being played on a more subliminal level. This adaptation of a famous French fairytale allows the director to once more explore the complexities of female desire, but this time there's not an erection to be seen. In fact, there's barely even any exposed flesh on display, apart from one sight of the title character's half-naked corpulence. By Breillat's standards, this is astonishingly chaste stuff, with a scene of voracious meat-eating being the closest Bluebeard gets to generating some kind of erotic heat.

Regrettably, it's all a little dull. Bluebeard is the grim story of a lord who has the habit of marrying and then murdering his wives – he's already been through seven at the story's opening – and Breillat plays the tale in a straight, minimalist fashion, while adding a framing device in which two young girls read the narrative from an old picture book. The main story follows two sisters, Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) and the elder Anne (Daphné Baiwir), left bereft and penniless when their father dies. Without a dowry to their name, they are left with little choice when Bluebeard (an excellent Dominique Thomas) sends a messenger to invite them to the castle, and the lord eventually settles on Marie-Catherine to be his new bride, taking her home to his imposing castle.

Breillat has not lost her ability to shoot beautiful young women, and her camera often lingers on the faces of Créton and Baiwir, allowing their expressions to tell the story. Créton's guileless and inquisitive performance is particularly impressive, and the director draws natural turns from Marilou Lopes-Benites and Lola Giovannetti as the two children delighting in this dark story. There's one superb moment in the film, when the two narratives, without warning, suddenly bleed into one another (there may be no sex here, but that other Breillat mainstay – blood – makes a vivid appearance), but generally I found the film perplexingly uninvolving. Breillat's detached and academic directorial style keeps us at a certain distance, and while the film is full of beautifully composed shots – including the haunting climactic image – I found myself futilely wishing for something more on the handful of occasions that Bluebeard showed a real spark of life. Breillat's film gets at the heart of darkness that underpins the best fairytales, but rarely has her work left me feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied.