Film Review: Bluebeard

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Berlin International Film Festival -- Panorama
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BERLIN -- Catherine Breillat's new film isn't for everyone. With its severe, stylized compositions and purposeful lack of realistic action, it might even be unbearable for some. In this retelling of the tale of the wife-killing Bluebeard, drawn from Perrault's classic three-page story, there's hardly an inch of bare skin visible, let alone the erect penises of Italian porn stars that graced some of Madame Breillat's earlier films.

Commercial prospects are therefore predictably slim, but festival programmers looking for an exercise in cinematic rigor, or university professors in search of a new feminist slant on an old tale -- that is, Camille Paglia's brand of feminism which touts female sexual power -- should definitely give it a look.

Breillat's retelling comes in two layers. The first is set in the 1950s and features two delightfully charming little girls, the younger of whom (according to an autobiographical statement in the press materials, she represents Breillat) loves torturing her slightly older sister with dramatic readings of the story of Bluebeard, the ogre who loves to murder women and eat little children.

The second layer is set in what vaguely looks like the Renaissance, though sometimes it unfortunately resembles those commercial Renaissance fairs in which people in costume walk about eating big turkey legs. (One other little problem that should be mentioned for the benefit of the scrupulous is that Bluebeard is occasionally shown wearing what is clearly a Catholic priest's chasuble.)

In any case, this setting represents the younger girl's, that is, Breillat's, imaginative projection of herself into the tale. In this version, Marie-Catherine (played by gorgeous teenage newcomer Lola Creton), Bluebeard's last wife, gets the better of the ogre because she is the virgin princess he cannot make up his mind to kill.

Like the famous biblical subject of Judith and Holoferenes embraced by many female painters throughout the centuries, Marie-Catherine closes the film lording it over Bluebeard's severed head lying on a plate.

The furthest thing imaginable from a slice-of-life open-form film, Breillat's "Bluebeard" is stripped to the barest, most classical and most literary form. There's little fresh air here, but there's not meant to be. Rather, it's the establishment through reversal of an imaginative paradigm in which little girls, and, by implication, big girls in their turn, conquer their fears by confronting them head on.

Production: Flach Film
Cast: Dominque Thomas, Lola Creton, Daphne Baiwir
Director-screenwriter: Catherine Breillat
Producer: Jean-Francois Lepetit, Sylvette Frydman
Director of photography: Vilko Filac
Production designer: Olivier Jacquet
Costume designer: Rose-Marie Melka
Editor: Pascale Chavance
Sales: Pyramide International

No rating, 80 minutes