Would you expect Catherine Breillat to have something in common with Manoel de Oliveira? Surprisingly, Breillat's new film Bluebeard shares the same vital interest in the chaste strictures of an older society as Oliveira's romance in Berlinale, Eccentricities of a Blond Hair Girl. The affinity is especially strong because the classic Bluebeard fairy tale is far from being subverted by Breillat; if her last film, The Last Mistress, proved anything, it was that this famously provocative director is tempering her explicitness in favor of straight dramas which allow contemporary viewers to confront older forms of social, shall we say, intercourse.
Like the Oliveira, Bluebeard has a framing story as well: two young sisters in the 20th century are reading the fairy tale, the younger one, provocative and precocious (a director stand-in, perhaps?), needles her more "sensitive" older sister by reading her the uncomfortable tale of maidenly murder. That tale is of a young girl (Lola Creton) who is married off to Lord Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), rumored to have murdered his previous wives. Yet with love and respect, the couple miraculously seems to get along, ignoring, at least for a while, the horror that lives within a story that demands a moral.
That horror is necessary. Indeed, the utopias of fairy tales and times past are fragile; and what would we learn if they did not break? One gesture, one breach of faith, one defect in character—in this more chivalrous and unforgiving time—is sure to forever ruin this romance (that we root for a murderous ogre and his preteen bride—why, it must be ruined!). Breillat, ever the provocateur even inside this surprisingly calm drama, makes sure that there are severe repercussions to these seemingly small things. So alien to our own time and significant to theirs, Breillat makes sure these gestures of the past effect our young storytellers who have share the same skepticism of old stories as we do. By framing the story as a story—a fairy tale told inside the film itself—Bluebeard unpretentiously shows that while the behavior of the past may be long dead, that behavior channels something universal, something true, and something disturbing to our own time. Fairy tales aren't only fantasy and imagination if they still get under our skins, and still have the power to kill.