Although the film was one of the highlights on last year’s festival circuit, it has taken a while for Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard to get a UK theatrical release. Originally scripted and produced for French television, Bluebeard is a subtly suggestive retelling of Charles Perrault’s fairy tale about an ugly and extremely wealthy lord whose wives disappear under mysterious circumstances, until he falls for the much younger Marie-Catherine, who agrees to marry him in order to escape the shadow of her beautiful, talented older sister. What makes this understated, low-budget film a pure pleasure is the bold, teasing dialogue between the two sisters in the film’s framing plot, set in modern time, in which Catherine, the younger girl, thoroughly enjoys terrifying her older sister Anne by reading her the infamous tale from a book found in their attic. Playfully grim and increasingly disturbing, with a wonderfully cruel narrative that hints at the fiercely, sexually provocative spirit of Breillat’s previous work, Bluebeard slowly inveigles you before hitting you hard.
Pamela Jahn took part in a round table with Catherine Breillat at the 2009 Berlin Film Festival, where the film had its world premiere.
Q: Of all fairy tales, what is it that fascinated you so much about the story of Bluebeard?
Catherine Breillat: When I was a child this was my favourite fairy tale, but I was always astonished that this tale was actually told to little girls, because it’s a fairy tale in which women are killed – Bluebeard is a real serial killer. In fairy tales, you often find a protagonist who is an ogre, like in Little Red Riding Hood for instance, who feels the urge to eat the victims in order to feed himself. But in the case of Bluebeard, you are talking about a human being who marries his victims, including this young woman. But in a way, he is as innocent as Marie-Catherine.
If you look at my films, you will see that I am somewhat obsessed by the relationship between victims and their executioner, but as if the relationship was a rational thing in a physical sense, a relationship between two different forces that measure themselves. And therefore I’ve always wanted to make a movie about Bluebeard. I had decided to make it before I started shooting The Last Mistress. I went to Arte and told them that I wanted to make the movie in five months, and within three or four weeks I wrote the script and organised the shoot. But then I had my stroke and all of a sudden I got a little scared about making the film. But eventually, my desire to make it was stronger and I decided to go ahead with it.
In your film the elder sister dies in the end. Being a younger sister yourself, was revenge something that crossed your mind when you wrote that last scene?
I think a younger sister’s secret desire is always to eliminate the first one. So, the death of the elder sister was a bit of a treat for myself. When I read the fairy tale to my sister at the age of five, I did so because I knew she was going to cry and break down before me, and at that point I felt stronger than her. I could have shouted ‘I have no fear, I have no fear’, like the little one in the film, and I was very proud of that – sadly, very proud of that. In a way, I was the small Bluebeard at the time. And when the mother arrives we don’t see the dead sister, we just see the little one, and we see her finally hugged by the mother.
Why didn’t you show the mother’s reaction to the death of her daughter?
Because this is a children’s world, and the mother is only there to show that the little girl will now get all her attention – this is what really matters. This is why she’s not looking at the elder daughter, she is just concentrating on the little one.
Has your sister seen the film yet?
No. There’s also a direct reference to us in the names. My sister’s name is Marie-Hélène and in the film she’s called Marie-Anne, and the little sisters are called Catherine and Marie-Catherine.
When the girl enters the room with the hanged woman, why did you choose the little girl from the present time instead of the girl from the fairy tale?
Because in stories or fairy tales or fiction in general, people usually like to project themselves onto the story. And it’s the same for this little girl, she wants to see these women, so she goes into the room herself.
It is fascinating to see how well the different time settings work together.
The girls are reading the story in the present and projecting their own feelings onto ancient times. But ancient times are modern, in the sense that Shakespeare is very up-to-date and modern, and the same goes for Sophocles. I remember that I had a big discussion with my producer because she wanted to have the girls’ hair styled in a certain way, but I said no. They had to look exactly how they imagine themselves in the fairy tale, dressed as though they are in the Middle Ages. All the characters are themselves, with the exception of Bluebeard, who is dressed half way between FranÃ§ois I by Clouet and Ivan the Terrible because he is a ghost and therefore is dressed like in a dream.
You also have a very playful way of dealing with the subject matter, for example, when the two girls start talking about homosexuality. Here you bring in a completely new topic into the story that, at the same time, creates some sort of confusion about their relationship.
Children have their own, delirious rationality, like when one of them says ‘God is somebody who is very busy and therefore he had to go down to the earth before going up to the sky’. This is something that I actually heard with my own ears, I didn’t make it up. And that’s why I decided to have this sequence, when they are talking about marriage, and the elderly sister starts talking in a very romantic way, playing with a ring all the time, and then the little one starts talking about sperm in a very rational way but, again, sort of in a delirious way also. Then she suddenly talks about homosexuality and I was absolutely struck by that and decided to keep it in the film. Little girls are not like puppets that will move and behave in the way you want. You just have to show children the way they really are. This is also why you should never explain fairy tales to children, I think, because children have their own imagination and their own way of interpreting them, which is much more important.
You mentioned before that, to some extent, Bluebeard was innocent too.
He is innocent in so far as he cannot not leave the castle, and he cannot not ask his wife to give him back the key, because the key is like a fairy. And this is fate, or a metaphor for fate. And we see very clearly that it is difficult for him to actually kill his wife because he loves her.
So, the monster is a friendly monster, in a way.
Yes, because he is the monster of desire – the monster of our desire, this obscure desire that we all have inside of us. And in that respect he must be somewhat nice, because what is exciting for us must have a nice side to it.
Does the killing of desire free the girl in the end?
She keeps him for herself, just like he keeps the hanged women for himself. So, that’s what unites them, because they do exactly the same thing. They become each other in a way.
So, in the end, the person, and his or her desire, is a very lonely thing.
Yes, I’ve just understood it myself because I’ve been asked the question. I hadn’t actually thought about it at all when making the film. This is why I am telling you that the real birth of the film happens when the audience watches the film. As Freud said, this is where the consciousness is being revealed.