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Anthologizing Bluebeard: A Conversation with Miriam Bale

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Anthologizing Bluebeard: A Conversation with Miriam Bale

A mysterious, handsome man lures women to their doom. This story has taken many forms; the Bluebeard legend in particular has inspired generations of artists. Beginning on Wednesday, March 3rd, Anthology Film Archives will screen a number of movies inspired by the story, from Chaplin’s classic Monsieur Verdoux to Catherine Breillat’s latest, Bluebeard. Also included will be rare works by Fritz Lang, Michael Powell, and others. I visited series curator Miriam Bale to learn more.

Tell us a bit about the real-life Bluebeard story.

Bluebeard was supposedly partially inspired by a 15th-century Breton serial killer named Gilles de Rais, but “Bluebeard” itself is a fairy tale. It was first written down by Charles Perrault who also wrote “Sleeping Beauty”, “Cinderella”, and “Little Red Riding Hood” and is known as the father of the modern fairy tale. But Bluebeard is remarkable for being a fairy tale without much magic; it’s very much about real people. It also reads as fairly modern in some ways. It was written in the 17th century, but it’s about a man who goes on a bunch of business trips and his smart, curious unsatisfied wife!

Bluebeard is rich, generous and owns several beautifully furnished homes. He’s also lonely and thought of as ugly (indicated by the hideous blue beard.) And he has a terrible reputation for marrying frequently and having these wives then mysteriously disappear. A young, unnamed heroine marries him anyway, with much pressure from her impoverished family. He gives her a full set of keys for exploring all the castle’s innumerable treasures as he goes off on his frequent business trips, but he also gives her one small key to a room at the end of the hall that she’s banned from looking in. Temptation! So, of course, she has to have a peek. She does and finds all the bodies of the previous wives in a bloody mess. A spot of blood gets on the key, and the only fantastic element of this story is that the spot won’t disappear. Once Bluebeard sees the bloodied key he has to kill her, at least according to his rules. In the Perrault version, especially in the original French version, there’s then this lyrical, haunting passage where, in the few minutes she’s granted before she’s supposed to die, she asks her sister over and over again if anyone is coming to rescue her. “No, I just see the sun with clouds powdering and the grass greening,” or something like that is her sister Anne’s poetic and feckless reply.

Breillat BluebeardWhere did the idea for this series come from?

The Breillat version screened at the NYFF where I had the pleasure of catching it, with much anticipation going in. I always love the themes that Breillat tackles, but I already had Bluebeard-on-the-brain after reading a wonderful passage by feminist musicologist, Susan McClary, in which she uses the tale as an apt analogy for feminist criticism. She describes the treasures as carefully arranged forms of self-aggrandizing publicity, but that “Judith and her sisters were simply not satisfied with the contradictory versions of reality given to them by a self-serving patriarch, and they aspired to discover the truth behind the façade.” McClary wrote that, like these women, what she desired to find out about music had little to do with authorized accounts of cultural history. As a feminist film critic, I could relate. And in the Breillat version, she has to sacrifice a lot for this knowledge. Then, after discussing the film with a friend, I started thinking about various versions. They were almost always stories about a smart woman who wants to know a man beyond the way he chooses to represent himself, but he refuses to be that vulnerable so as not to lose his power in the situation. It was the differences in this particular approach that made a series seem like a good idea; I thought of the comic craziness of the way she slays the Bluebeard in the Lubitsch version, for instance. Then I realized you could do a show with Ulmer, Lubitsch, Lang, Chaplin, Powell and Méliès—who all understood film art beyond measure and maybe beyond criticism even—and I thought, well, if you can do a show with those names, you should. And Jed Rapfogel at Anthology agreed! (Jed put the show together with me in a complete collaboration.)

There are Bluebeard movies that aren’t showing in this series. Is there anything that this particular set has in common in addition to the source story?

Well, yes, all of these filmmakers are different kinds of magicians—Méliès first and most famously—with their various dreamy, delirious or giddy tones. They all create very successful sealed otherworlds. But they’re also all quite grounded, even earthy, in their own ways. Ulmer, famous for creating haunting ambiances with paperclip and chewing gum special effects budgets, had both these qualities simultaneously to an extreme. I thought it was interesting that all these filmmakers would then be attracted to this fairy tale without the fantastic. Most of these guys—I’d say Lubitsch and Powell especially, besides Breillat of course—also dealt with gender issues with very nuanced complexity, so I thought it was very interesting that they were all attracted to this bloody love story about a strong, curious woman and a vulnerable man.

What major patterns, fascinations, or just plain interests do you see in Bluebeard movies? Are there ones in particular that you think draw filmmakers over and over?

Oh, the motifs are so rich! Business trips, sisterhood, the tragedy of knowing and being known—all of these themes come up frequently and in endlessly creative manifestations. Chaplin’s whole movie is based on exploring this idea of the business trips! Also, whenever you’re getting into hallways and keys, you’re getting into R. Kelly territory a little, if you know what I mean. So sex, marriage, violence, vulnerability and exposure—all good stuff for getting into in the movies.

There are many kinds of movies where men lure women to their doom, often with a sexual dimension—I’m thinking especially of horror subgenres like the slasher movie and the vampire movie. How is the Bluebeard story different?

Well, I’d say first of all that Bluebeard, with its mysterious house to explore and the innocent Final Girl who tries to solve the mystery and overcome the killer, is often thought of as a predecessor of the horror genre.

Breillat’s film actually tells two stories: The Bluebeard tale, and the story of two fascinated little girls telling it. To me, she’s adding an extra layer of commentary that the other movies don’t have, toying with our fascination with the Bluebeard narrative even while she’s presenting it (please disagree if you like). In what other ways is her film departing from its ancestors?

Oh, yeah, this is great. That element is what makes it, for me, her best film yet. It takes the complexities of the dual narratives in a film like Celine and Julie Go Boating (and identification with and ownership of handed-down narratives is a key feminist film theme) but plays with these two strains so skillfully that it becomes unclear which is the story and which is the story-within-the-story. Breillat also brilliantly addresses one of the most interesting theories about the origins this story. Some Bluebeard scholars think that before it was written down by Perrault it was an oral tale passed on from woman to woman. (Some think it was a warning against marriage!) So, knowing this, the relationship of those two girls telling the story to each other and then their relationship to the women in the story take on added significance.

Bluebeard's 8th Wife

Picking between children (don’t answer if you don’t want to): What are the films to be especially excited about this series?

Oh, I can’t choose. The Méliès was a revelation. It’s definitely one of his best. (And I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but all nine minutes can be seen in one YouTube clip.) You’ve got to see the Lang and the Powell, because they’re so rare and so beautiful, and you can’t see them anywhere else. (I’m also thrilled that Thelma Schoonmaker, Michael Powell’s widow, will be introducing the screening on the 5th because I’m sure she’ll have something interesting to say about this film that Powell made without Pressburger, but with the same art director who made The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. It’s an interesting era for him.) The Ulmer is seriously fascinating and a little weird. It’s also rare; it’s on DVD but in a terrible public domain copy that’s such bad quality it’s not really worth watching. But the Lubitsch is the one I’m afraid might slip through the cracks. I’ve been occasionally described as a Lubitischian, so I may be a little biased, but this one is pretty crazy. It’s as much a Wilder film as a Lubitsch and the hybrid is unlike either director’s other work; it’s less delicate than most Lubitsch but very woozy and funny. And it has one of the best comic performances of all time—the genius David Niven in his first major Hollywood role.

My favorite movie in the series (and one of my favorite movies, period) is 1947’s Monsieur Verdoux. For the first time Charlie Chaplin doesn’t play the Tramp, though clearly brings the association; as André Bazin wrote, the film chills because you get the sense that the post-WWII world has turned the Tramp into a serial killer. I feel like Breillat is up to something similar—taking an object we normally associate with childhood innocence (the Little Fellow, the storybook) and twisting it to show how monstrous it can be. Is she also commenting on the state of the world today, in the same way Chaplin was? Could any of the other films be read as statements on their eras?

Well, I’d argue that the self-hatred about when one’s arsenal of charm works all too well is eraless, also genderless. That’s how I read the relationship of the Tramp character to Verdoux, and why I think its comedy is so brilliant and unsettling. He is playing the Tramp and we’re all as much chumps for falling for it as his victims/wives. I think it’s a classic tale and that all these films are classics. I think Breillat is self-consciously tackling the timelessness of the story. What era are the girls who are reading the story in? An ambiguous 20th century. The people reading the tale are as much, if not more, storybook style than the tale itself. But, as far as your original question, I think that Chaplin approaches the idea of these mysterious “business trips” in a very interesting way. And the relationship of patriarchy to the manufacturing of war and business, and the business of war for status is complex, and certainly came to a head in that era..

How’s the Verdoux print? Where did you find it and the others?

It’s great! It’s coming directly (maybe even hand-delivered) from our friend Jake Perlin, who runs the most exciting new film distribution company around, The Film Desk. We found the prints by a little digging and a lot of luck. And some very nice support from all involved with the series.

Claude Chabrol made a Bluebeard movie (Landru) that’s not showing. Are there others worth seeking out if Anthology audiences can’t get enough?

Well, Jed and I both wanted to stick with these guaranteed classics. It makes the series stronger. Also I think for both of us the series was about exploring the similarities among these particular directors and what it is that drew them to this tale. But that’s also part of my attitude towards programming in general; I’m not a completist or a collector. I’d rather watch a very good film twenty times than watch a mediocre rare film even once. But saying that, on my own I do watch a lot of oddities. The Dmytryk version is definitely that. Almost worth programming because of the amazing Morricone score and Raquel Welch as a sexy nun, but not quite. Joey Heatherton is pretty great in it, though, and Richard Burton plays a Bluebeard who just can’t get it up. He wants to desire all these women but he can’t fulfill his end of the bargain when they desire him. Also worth seeking out is the Pina Bausch ballet version. And lucky us, this is also on YouTube (at least right now.) The Piano is also a Bluebeard movie.

Is there anything else that you’d like audiences to know going in?

“One reason for the attraction may be that it is hard to decide whether Bluebeard is about a woman or a man: Each sex reads, and therefore retells, Bluebeard very differently,” wrote Rose Lovell-Smith is Feminism and Bluebeard. This gender struggle leads to a complex point-of view, to two protagonists in Bluebeard. As a feminist, that’s exactly what I look for in films: Films not about men as subjects and women as objects, and not about women in a chicklit-flavored isolated world, but films about men and women. There are surprisingly few. Bluebeard is about a woman who refuses to be an object. I don’t say that all of these films are feminist (and, in fact, one is decidedly non-feminist) but they do lead to interesting questions about the delicate balance between mystery and authenticity in gender power dynamics.

Aaron Cutler has written about film for Slant Magazine and The Believer.