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In France in the mid-'50s, Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) enjoys toying with her older sister, Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), by reading her the story of the murderous and oft-married Bluebeard, embellishing the story with plenty of gore and scaring the girl out of her wits. As Catherine rereads the story, we're taken back to the year 1697, as Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) prepares to make Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) his seventh wife. Marie-Catherine's youth and innocence make her an especially attractive quarry to Bluebeard, and rather than murder her right away, he decides to wait a while in order to savor the terrible joy of claiming her life. However, as Bluebeard becomes caught in a cycle of events that keep him from following through on his wife's murder, the two slowly become something like a normal couple and Marie-Catherine begins to turn the tables on her spouse.
Infused with a sumptuous elegance, Catherine Breillat's eerie retelling of the Charles Perrault fairytale Bluebeard is very sensual and highly stylized while adhering to an almost literary interpretation of the story. Shown at the Vancouver Film Festival, the film operates on parallel levels, both involving two sisters. In the first story, two young sisters play in the attic of their home in France in the present time. Catherine, who according to Breillat's autobiographical material, represents the director, plays power games with her older but more withdrawn sister Marie-Anne by tormenting her with readings of the classic horror story "Bluebeard".
While young Catherine is reading the story, the drama plays out on the screen in a setting that looks like the 16th century. Another pair of sisters Anne (Daphne Baiwir) and Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) (note the similarity in names) receive sad news at a convent from a coldly unfeeling Mother Superior that their father was killed while trying to save a little girl. Without means to continue at their private school, the girls are unceremoniously thrown out. On the way home, they pass Bluebeard's Castle and comment on the local aristocrat who, rumor has it, married many wives who strangely disappeared.
It is not long until the corpulent Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas) begins to court the young and attractive Marie-Catherine. Without money for a dowry, Marie-Catherine, undaunted by the whispers, agrees to marry the wealthy Bluebeard. The film then moves back and forth between the two stories, with the younger girls' reading and commenting on the fairytale providing comic relief for the heavy drama of male power and female sexual awareness unfolding at the castle. Marie-Catherine seems to have charmed Bluebeard who appears loving but whose intimidating frame towers over the slender virgin.
Marie has, however, cannily set things up in her favor. She has chosen for herself a room so small that the hefty Bluebeard cannot enter but she can tiptoe down the hall and peek into the room where he is getting undressed. When he goes away on an unspecified trip, Marie-Catherine invites her sister Anne to the house and they have much fun but Marie is sad until her new husband returns home one month later. Before leaving on his second trip, however, he gives his wife a key to a mysterious room in the cellar with the impossible instruction not to open the door. Frightened of disobeying her husband but tantalized by the secret, Marie-Catherine unlocks the mystery chamber only to be confronted by her worst fears and the story plays out in Breillat's provocative and unpredictable fashion.
Bluebeard's setting immerses the audience in a world that is far removed from today's realities, yet teenage newcomer Lola Créton gives Marie-Catherine a playful confidence and pride to go along with her natural purity and innocence in a way that speaks to today's feminist sensibilities. Going backwards and forwards in time also highlights the universal qualities inherent in the Gothic fairy tales that, even when they are decidedly dark as in this case, have a lot to teach us about confronting our fears, lessons often hidden by the pandering of Walt Disney animation. Resonant with wit and sexual tension, Catherine Breillat has, in Bluebeard reestablished the reality of the world of children both full of terror and untold beauty and, in the process, has created a minor masterpiece.
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