Monday 23 January 2012

On DVD: "Bluebeard"

One of Catherine Breillat's occasional doodle-projects (see also: 2001's Brief Crossing), Bluebeard tells two stories in parallel. First, we get the Bluebeard legend itself, à la Breillat: how two sisters - one redheaded and dreamy, the other brunette and headstrong - come to fall under the influence of the titular landowner (and suspected wifekiller) after the death of their own father leaves them in penury. The other strand provides a latter-day interpretation of the text, as another, younger pair of siblings discover the Bluebeard storybook in an attic, dust it down, and act it out for themselves.

The director's second period piece in a row - following 2008's excellent The Last Mistress - it's characterised, once again, by a determined austerity. Breillat makes period movies as though she hasn't even got the resources to cobble together a contemporary piece, a stance that somehow works in her favour: the paring-back of conventional fripperies - literally so, in the early scene where the removal men divest the first sisters' home of its furniture - benefits the storytelling, and allows us to read more into the dialogue. Upon marrying Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), the headstrong sister (Lola Créton) demands a room with a smaller door. "I won't be able to get in," complains her hubby. "Then my husband will always be too big for me," is the response. Who says size doesn't matter in a relationship?

The main business, however, is a return to Breillat's recurring theme of sisterhood, in all its forms (the director herself has a sister, Marie-Hélène, with whom she acted in Last Tango in Paris), though here we're presented not so much with the sibling rivalry that took centre stage in 2001's À ma sœur!, but a rather sketchy comparison of sisterhood across the ages; at a stretch, Bluebeard could be bracketed in with the new wave of Hollywood women's pictures - The Hours, Julie & Julia, even this week's theatrical release W.E. - that seek to contrast one set of societal conditions with another. Again, it's telling that the present-day business is much less resonant than the historical narrative: the two youngsters offer footnotes rather than especially perceptive commentary, and while this contemporary strand allows Breillat one of her trademark, arbitrary shock endings, it does rather recall those inserts Jane Campion placed, somewhat awkwardly, in her adaptation of The Portrait of a Lady, showing schoolgirls giggling over their set text.

The two younger performers (Daphné Baïwir and Marilou Lopes-Benites) do, however, share a tremendous, infectious sense of play and spontaneity; there is something very encouraging in the way Breillat has started to open her films up, rather than closing them off from the pleasures of performance, song and dance. Ideas that once might have been barked directly at the viewer are now allowed to roam freely; so too, now, do Breillat's characters. When a time slippage/imaginative fugue results in the very youngest of the four girls coming to skip through the bloodsoaked chamber where Bluebeard's dead wives hang from the ceiling, her mantra ("I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid, I'm not afraid") could, conceivably, be understood as speaking for an entire generation of newly liberated women.

Bluebeard is available on DVD from today.

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