The old—make that ancient—Charles Perrault fairy tale of Bluebeard seems such a natural text for the ever-provocative French filmmaker Catherine Breillat to twist into knots that one wonders why the notion of making a film of it didn't occur to Breillat sooner. As Breillat reveals below, the project had in fact been kicking around for a few years, and Breillat's visually stunning, droll, and yes, sometimes horrific realization of the tale proved one of the most bracing highlights of 2009's New York Film Festival. (New York was pretty much its last stop on the festival circuit; Daniel Kasman weighed in, most eloquently, on the film from Berlin earlier this year, here.)
Breillat suffered a stroke in 2004, and went on after that to make one of her best-received films, 2007's The Last Mistress. When I interviewed her in connection with that film in Toronto that year, she was frail, and had lost all of her English. It was good to see, interviewing her in New York in this last October, how much more she has recovered; she still walks with the assistance of a cane, but has gotten much of her English back. She prefers French, of course, and this interview was conducted with the assistance of interpreter Robert Gray. She looks one in the eye whenever she addresses a question, and on this occasion gave the impression that she could talk all night. She is a fierce artist, a fierce person. Caution: spoilers concerning Breillat's Bluebeard abound.
Glenn Kenny: I want to ask you how you found so many of these extraordinary and unusual performers; they're all so interesting, so off the beaten path of what we see in films.
Catherine Breillat: I did love that shot of her standing there, so slender and such a good girl figure, whereas there he was, the hugeness of Bluebeard. The shirt that he is wearing, by the way, is based on a reproduction of a painting by Clouet, of King François the First. And that was what we based his clothing on. But there his figure was absolutely colossal. He looks like a big cat or like some baby. And I thought the meeting was so extraordinary because it was a meeting of two solitudes, of two loners. Everyone's afraid of him and she sees him for what he is, for this very lonely character.
Kenny: Absolutely. It was the same thing. I cast him the same way as I cast the young girls. I met all the huge men in France and I loved in him a sense of tenderness. I'm not sure if it comes across to non-French audiences, but his voice is absolutely sublime.
Kenny: It's funny, because in such stories the children usually go downstairs into a forbidden area. So I kept them shot in such a way that they actually go down a few stairs to finally reach the attic as a forbidden space. But I like the graphic elements of the attic. To me it was important that we have those beams at an angle, I thought was very visual, for the composition. As a young girl, as a very young girl, I was especially taken with "Bluebeard" and I would read it together with my sister. And I was very proud of the fact that even though I was younger than her, she would be the one who would start to cry before me in reading that tale. And at the same time I actually find it so surprising that young girls of no more than six or seven read this tale in which they are taught to love the man who is going to kill them. However, in this version, she is the one who kills him. Here, she doesn't die because he takes a kind of pity on her. He's moved by her, and so he doesn't act quickly enough, he can't kill her. And that's why he hurries back so quickly. He knows that if she succumbs to temptation and goes to that gallery to see the murdered woman that he's going to be forced to kill her.
And when he discovers the truth, he's standing there with this huge sword and he weeps because after all he is going to have to...[SPOILERS DELETED!]
The film is also a tale about the superiority...of the grace...of young women over the power of colossal men. [Kind of the story of my own marriage—GK] Perrault's version of the tale is based on the Mother Goose tales. But it was also greatly inspired by a real historical figure, Gilles de Rais, who was a lord, a very powerful man, who killed mostly young boys, but also young women too, I believe. At the same time he was a contemporary and a good friend of Joan of Arc who was the Virgin of France, of course, the maid of France. And this is why I made Marie-Catherine, in my film, a young girl who is also a virgin; I wanted to be like Joan of Arc. And put her up against Gilles de Rais, this very important French lord, a very well known figure in French history, who happened to be a pedophile serial killer. Kenny: I was afraid to ask! I saw À ma soeur! in Toronto on I think September 9th of 2001 and everybody thought, what a marvelous film but the ending seemed kind of arbitrary. And then a few days later came a very strong realization of how arbitrary disaster can seem.
Breillat: It's funny you mention that because when I presented the film to the audience in Toronto for the official screening, I said, pay attention, because the next unexpected news item you see, the thing that is inconceivable that presents itself...you'll see that you're fascinated by that explosion of violence, the brutal violence. Violence is always brutal. And then 2 days later was September 11th. And the very ending of the film is in fact, funnily enough, based on a banal news story—not banal, but just the sort of news story that one reads in the papers fairly regularly. I added, of course, the line which says, "You'll believe me, believe me if you want."
Kenny: I always do that! As for locations, in this film I'd thought that I'd need four different locations. However, I found one castle and that was enough. The other locations were very close by. For example, Marie's room was in reality very close to the room in which you see the dead father and that made it easy to work. They could be working on the lighting for the one scene while shooting the other. And it's the same thing. For example, the hallway that you see in Bluebeard's castle, the corridor that you see in the convent, they're actually a continuation one of the other. I found the mother of the girls while we were shooting. She actually works on an assembly line and that's why she has the one hand by her face. It's so beautiful at the same time ravaged by the hard life she's led. And all the other actors aside from the leading actors I found in the region where we were shooting. And that was something that I said I would do because by using local actors you can save a lot of money. I always find the people shouldn't complain if you accept to do a film for a small budget, then you can't complain afterwards and whine and say, oh, it would have been so much better if I'd had more money. If you accept to do it, then you have to do it and do it for that. In fact I find it quite amusing to work under such constraints. It's always very stimulating.