Catherine Breillat has a reputation for being provocative. I’m afraid 'Le Barbe Bleue', however, provokes only boredom, bemusement and mild nausea. I wasn’t meant to be seeing the film, it was thrust upon me, which I think is the only way it might chance upon any of you. I wanted to see French froth ‘Heartbreaker’ (reviewed scathingly by our very own mchael watts here) but the projector was broken. The only other film we could see, suspiciously, was 'Le Barbe Bleue'. Breillat might be using guerilla projector-wreckers to get her film seen; it may be her only hope. As the medieval music began and shots of hilariously garbed young girls hit the screen, my mother whispered to me that we didn’t have to stay for the whole thing. But stay we did.
We open in a convent, where a stern-faced nun tells two snot-nosed girls that their father is dead. The girls are inexplicably dressed as nuns; their costumes formed artfully from the plastic cones animals wear after visiting the vet, and a couple of sheets. They are sent packing - too poor now it seems, even for the convent - and begin the long carriage ride home. On the rickety route (throughout which they cry continuously) they pass a great castle and ask the driver who lives there. “Ah”, he says with relish, “that is the home of Lord Bluebeard, the richest man for miles”. The younger of the sisters stops her whimpering and swears that one day she will marry a rich man and live in a castle just like that. The driver looks aghast; she wouldn’t marry Bluebeard, “he has had seven wives already and all of them have disappeared without trace”.
And so begins Breillat’s retelling of Perrault’s seventeenth-century fairy tale 'Bluebeard'. The younger sister gets her way and finds out just what became of his previous wives; it’s not a pretty picture. Breillat has said this film is about sisterly rivalry but, while the sisters do provide a fraught picture of the petty bitterness and jealous love that can be shared between girls, neither sister is particularly likeable or interesting. And neither of them can sing, which they do incessantly. The near-paedophilic relationship between Bluebeard (who does indeed have cerulean follicles) and his child bride is far more interesting. The film as a whole feels incredibly false and amateur - you never quite get away from the sense that here is a group of people dressing up in costumes and playing at fairy tales. For the grim violence and genuine suspense of Perrault’s tale, far more realism was needed to make a successful retelling.