In wildly different ways, both Catherine Breillat’s Fat Girl and The Last Mistress orchestrate the collective invasion of the female psyche by male oppressors. In each film, Breillat unravels sexual power and control to illustrate how her heroine’s battle against these social affronts, and the many different ways they fall victim to them. But Breillat brilliantly reverses this trend with her new film Bluebeard, a disjointed and diabolical period-piece balancing multiple story lines of sisters attempting to transcend the domineering male guise.
When their father passes away unexpectedly, Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton) and her older sister Anne (Daphne Baiwir) return home to their widowed mother, forced into the poor house and social ridicule. During their long carriage ride home, the girls pass by the towering castle of a wealthy and brutal aristocrat named Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), and Marie-Catherine asks why such a structure would be built. Her sister answers,”To fend off invasions.” Marie-Catherine smiles, and the girls continue home.
Bluebeard later hears of the girl’s plight and proposes one of the sisters become his wife. Despite knowing Bluebeard has murdered his previous wives, the ambitious Marie-Catherine eagerly agrees to marry him. Almost immediately, her meek and slender physique begins playing tricks on the man’s perception, and Breillat stages a slow coup d’etat subverting gender politics and class distinctions. The subtle burn of revenge is something to behold, ending with a final shot confronting the fragility and brutality seeping through the castle walls.
Bluebeard appears to be a polished cinematic drama on the surface, but as with all of her recent films, Breillat deconstructs our expectations with genre and character. In a sly aesthetic decision, Breillat tells the story of Marie-Catherine and Bluebeard through the subjective eyes of another pair of sisters (also named Marie-Catherine and Anne), who find a copy of Bluebeard the novel in their attic and read out portions aloud. These young girls represent a disturbing parallel to the literary characters, playing out their relationship in much the same way, using prose as weapons against each other, finally acting out the film’s ending in their own harrowing way.
Breillat weaves these two stories together superbly, juxtaposing the nuances of each to potently represent her auteurist thematics. Taking emotional and physical control brings extreme power, but for both sets of sisters these actions also wreak havoc. The true horror comes in whether or not they decide to accept the consequences of their actions. As a procedure of gender invasion, Breillat’s Bluebeard paints a dynamic picture of social cost/reward, a sometimes terrifying and always fluid chess match no matter the characters or the time frame.