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Cinephile wisdom has it that Michael Powell made his final masterpiece, Peeping Tom, in 1960 - only to dwindle into rapid and irreversible decline. In fact, this cinematic wizard did make one more staggering film. Bluebeard's Castle, a film of an opera by Bela Bartok, was shot for German TV and has never (to my knowledge) had a screen or video release. Yet its blend of sadistic voyeurism and Gothic visual frenzy makes it a great 'last will and testament' by Powell, who was a master of both.
In Powell's mise-en-scene (as in the libretto by Bela Balazs, a pioneer film theorist) Count Bluebeard is not a sneering fairytale villain. He's a man of refined taste, whose sheer aesthetic adoration of his brides compels him to kill - to reduce the women he loves to lifeless statues. He's in a direct line of descent from Conrad Veidt as the evil magician in Thief of Baghdad, Anton Walbrook as the demonic ballet impresario in The Red Shoes and, indeed, Karl Bohm as the homicidal photographer in Peeping Tom.
Unlike the women in those earlier films, Bluebeard's new wife Judith is no hapless victim - flailing about like a butterfly stuck through with a pin. She is, rather, a strong-willed and ruthless manipulator of her crazed husband. One by one, she wheedles out of him the keys to his seven secret chambers. In a horrifying way, she colludes in her own demise.
This tormented couple are the only live beings onscreen, yet the sets and costumes seem to writhe with a life all their own. A hall of Expressionist sculptures loom like twisted, frozen gargoyles. A jungle of artificial flowers sheds it radiant petals, as Bluebeard and his bride make love on a vast purple bed. Given this film's intimate scale, designer/painter Hein Heckroth outdoes even his own work on Powell's 1951 opera epic Tales of Hoffmann.
Best of all, Bluebeard's Castle passes the test of any truly great opera production - making us listen raptly to music we might not otherwise care for. I've never been a Bartok fan, but his score won me over because every note was matched so perfectly by the images and the drama onscreen.
Not only does this hour-long tour de force point back to Powell's great work of the 40s and 50s. It also looks forward to some of my favourite films in later decades, notably Carmelo Bene's Salome and Matthew Barney's Cremaster 5. What more could an obsessive film and opera buff ever want?
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