I went to see Catherine Breillat’s new feature at the IFC tonight. The film is a remake of the classic French fairytale, Le Barbe Bleu, by Charles Perrault. The story originated in oral tradition as a cautionary tale told to young women about the dangers of desire. Perrault’s version was one of eight tales published by the Barbin in Paris in 1697 in Histoires ou Contes du temps passe. The story tells the tale of a bloodthirsty ogre of considerable wealth who has adopted the habit of taking young wives and killing them.
Breillat casts the film in two rotating frames: a present day parable depicting two young sisters reading Perrault’s original fable one day while at play in the attic, and a larger more robust tale of a young girl who is separated from her family after the loss of her father and sold off to the abominable old ogre who lives in a nearby château. The second of the two frames is set in medieval times, replete with the requisite renaissance garb, grizzly beheadings, racks of dead birds, and mist.
In Breillat’s hands the fable takes on a whimsical quality. Though the film isn’t short on artifice, the brevity of the script and the charm of the young actresses lend it a monastic grace. Here is a love story which ends in a young girl being stripped of her innocence as she descends into the basement of the castle and opens the only door her elder lover and keeper has forbidden her to trespass. There she plays in a bloody pool of her slain predecessors as if in a sandbox with a set of hanging porcelain dolls. The effect is something akin to Lydia Millet’s My Happy Life, or the work of Angela Carter. The character acts as both literary ingenue and modern-day cipher.
A tender charm worth seeing.