'Bluebeard'

Compelling take on Bluebeard gets to the original story’s heart of darkness with impressive results.

Having built a career on provocative, sexually explicit yet cerebral fare (“Romance,” “Sex Is Comedy”), Catherine Breillat shocked auds with her 2007 period piece, “The Last Mistress,” because it was not all that shocking. Now the Gallic helmer’s latest, “Bluebeard,” features considerable blood but no sex. This offbeat but compelling take on the tale, arguably the first serial-killer yarn, emphasizes sisterly bonds but still gets to the original story’s heart of mysterious darkness with impressive results. Low-budget production values will, however, keep pic locked up in arthouse ivory towers.

Once upon a time in the 1950s, somewhere in France, two young sisters, 7-or-so-year-old Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti), who’s a couple years older, go to play in the attic. Impish Catherine insists on reading “Bluebeard” to her frightened sister, and as she does, the story unfolds onscreen.

Set in an unspecific time that looks roughly like the early 18th century, pic introduces two other sisters, teenagers Anne (Daphne Baiwir) and the younger Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton), being thrown out of a nun-run boarding school when their father dies and their family is unable to afford the school fees. Back home, the girls watch as the furniture is taken away to pay bills.

With no dowry to offer, the chance to become a bride to the notorious local squire Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), who’ll take a wife with no cash down, starts to look attractive. The only hitch is that his previous wives had a habit of never being seen again.

Nevertheless, Marie-Catherine is literally and figuratively hungry for the good life and agrees to marry Bluebeard, finding him surprisingly gentle at home. He only asks that she obey a single rule: Don’t open the one room he forbids her to enter while he’s away. Everyone knows what happens next, although there’s still a twist in store.

Although the script is roughly faithful to author Charles Perrault’s original tale, there’s no mistaking that this is a Catherine Breillat film. Characters talk in that slightly stiff, declamatory way they always do in her films, sisters love and hate each other in the same instant (invoking shades of “Fat Girl”), and relations between the sexes are fraught with mutual incomprehension and disappointment. And yet, despite the chamber of horror that reps the pic’s climactic reveal, the tone is dreamy, almost breezy, with the childish banter between the two 1950s girls even offering light relief.

Having said that, prospective distribs are hardly likely to market this to family auds, although Breillat perfectly understands how kids, especially girls, crave stories that terrify them. In fact, in the film’s press notes, she writes about the autobiographical inspiration for the story.

Shot on HD, pic clearly cut corners in various craft departments, such as costume and sets. Several times, Breillat even uses exactly the same shot of a character going up or down a set of stairs two or three times in a row to suggest the staircase is longer than it really is, although this might have been a deliberate device.

Bluebeard

France

Production

A Flach Film, CB Films, Arte France presentation. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Jean-Francois Lepetit, Sylvette Frydman. Directed, written by Catherine Breillat.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Vilko Filac; editor, Pascale Chavance; set designer, Olivier Jacquet; costume designer, Rose-Marie Melka; sound (Dolby Digital), Yves Osmu. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 8, 2009. Running time: 78 MIN.

With

Dominique Thomas, Lola Creton, Daphne Baiwir, Marilou Lopes-Benites, Lola Giovannetti, Farida Khelfa, Isabelle Lapouge.

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