Meat. It makes for a particular cinematic experience when Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) sits down to eat some with her betrothed, an aristocrat known as Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas). Focused resolutely on their dinners — meat on bones — they gnaw and chew and roll their eyes, each glancing occasionally at the other as if to confirm that their pleasure, so very sincere, is also mutual.
Versions of this scene appear more than once in Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard (Barbe Bleue), which rethinks the fable of a man who killed his wives. If the meat here stands in for the couple’s carnal delights (if they do engage in sexual activity, the film doesn’t show it), it also suggests their matching energies and desires. Marie-Catherine, a child bride in various ways, is certainly naïve, but she is also fierce and shrewd, never quite bending to the will of her monstrous husband even as she appears to do just that.
At first, it appears that Marie-Catherine is a captive within her own story. She and her sister Anne (Daphné Baïwir) learn that their father has died in an accident. “He threw himself under a carriage to save a child,” reports their Mother Superior (Farida Khelfa), just before she kicks them out of school because of their “changed condition” (“We’re a private college,” she adds, “Not a charity, alas”). The girls are thus multiply mortified, sent back home to their mother (Isabelle Lapouge) and suddenly in need of livelihoods or benefactors (options being limited for girls of their not-exactly-wealthy background). They respond very differently. Anne is horrified by dad’s abject action, blaming him for choosing what amounted to suicide over his family obligations. And Marie-Catherine is utterly forgiving, seeing his act as selfless and even ennobling, a sign of her father’s broad humanity and generous spirit.
The scene where the sisters debate their father’s motives — set in the room where his corpse lies between them, pale and ghastly — is not a little macabre. They are at once too familiar with death (it is, after all, the 17th century, and no one lives very long) and completely mystified by it. Their own relationship is equally complex, intimate and competitive, entangled and separate (when Anne leaves the room, Marie-Catherine leans in to whisper into her dead father’s ear: “She’s a fool who talks nonsense”). The sisters appear quite used to such messiness, able to laugh and cry together at the same time, resent and forgive one another in any given moment. Even as they appear weary of their mother’s noisy and unhelpful complaints (“How will I marry you off? Your father left us nothing, only debts!”), they also realize that something must be done.
That something is framed again by another story, one involving two other sisters, Catherine (Marilou Lopes-Benites) and Marie-Anne (Lola Giovannetti). Set in the 1950s of Breillat’s own childhood, these girls are introduced as they enter an attic full of dust, dolls, and books. Thrilled by the treasures, they soon begin to read to one another. When one sister laments that the chosen tome — Bluebeard — is “sad when he wants to kill her,” the other notes, “The Little Mermaid makes me cry too, but the ending’s different.”
Those different endings are indeed each upsetting in their own ways — Bluebeard’s wife is murdered, and the mermaid gives up her former life to marry a prince. And both are typical of the fairy tales written and collected by Charles Perrault, in particular The Tales of Mother Goose (1697), assembled from folktales. One of these stories, “Contes de ma mère l’Oye,” provides grist for Breillat’s wily revision here, as Marie-Catherine deciphers not only how to support her family, but also how to survive her own coming of age, while the other sisters, the readers, face their own catastrophe, with slightly less poise.
Once Marie-Catherine marries her large, ugly, and apparently literally blue-bearded man and moves into his dark castle, she misses her sister (the girls early on agree, “There are always invasions, barbarism is everywhere”). When she’s around Bluebeard, Marie-Catherine is doting and obedient, except when she’s not. She insists on having her own bedroom (in a closet, as this small space is most familiar to her), listens sympathetically to his grousing (apparently, he feels misunderstood: “I’m a monster. Everybody sees me as a monster. I’m aware of it, so I became a monster”), and pursues her own interests.
These last represent the fairy tale’s cautions: when Bluebeard tells her not to investigate the castle when he’s away on business trips, Marie-Catherine is unable to keep herself from doing exactly that, discovering his dark secret in the process. As she confronts something like grisly “truths” in the form of wives’ bodies, the storytelling frame breaks into pieces: Marie-Catherine is not the figure in the bloody basement, but instead, it is little Anne, her pink-checked dress stained gruesome red.
The film doesn’t resolve these narrative crossings into any sort of thematic bow. Instead, it opens up another set of questions. Are adult interactions by definition hurtful and even violent? Are children condemned to enter into this realm, where rules are made and broken in the same breath, where power is must be wielded like a knife, where throats are inevitably cut or necks inevitably broken? Moreover, how do boys and girls become men and women, aware of their histories of violence, shaped by mutual expectations, and roped into unavoidable plotlines?
As always, Breillat’s versions of these questions can be hard to watch as well as absolutely compelling (see also: Romance and especially Fat Girl). If meat is a useful metaphor and image, it is also material, grotesque and also sustenance. Here again, the pursuits and definitions of pleasure are thematic concerns, whether Marie-Catherine works out her sexual and narrative curiosities or Anne seeks the delights of reading and listening to stories she’s heard before. This is the trick, that stories can be repetitive as well as startling, well known and baffling.