It is a simple enough modern story by which to frame the story of Charles Perrault’s seventeenth-century “Blue Beard”: two sisters, one aggressively reading the Perrault story to the other, using the old fairy tale as a weapon and forcing her sister into a sudden fall. In her extraordinarily rich and evocative Barbe Bleue, Catherine Breillat discovers a tale of sibling rivalry that compounds the original story, turning the Perrault into a story-within-the-story; and, in the outer story, one of childhood instead of adolescence, one of sisters instead of marriage, making the horror all that much more ordinary, more everyday personal, by naming the sisters after herself and her own sister. It is Catherine who reads Perrault’s “Blue Beard” aloud in the attic, pushing older sister Marie-Anne with language to her death. Throughout, Breillat has been cutting between this story and the Perrault, but with the death of the terrified listener the final image, a return to the Perrault, is an abortion of that story: an interminably ambiguous because unresolved freeze frame—as it were, the putting on ice of “Blue Beard” by Charles Perrault.
The story with which we are all familiar, the one by Perrault, is expanded-upon, with inspiration, perhaps, from Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber” (1979), both an extended gloss on the Perrault and a subjectification/interiorization, from the point of view of Blue Beard’s latest (and last) bride, deepening the grisly nature of the original. Once again, economic disparity presses for the marital union despite the rumored murders of all Blue Beard’s other wives. But the lovely rendering of Perrault’s tale of a man who lures his wives into disobeying him so that he feels justified in murdering them is denied Perrault’s happy ending of fraternal rescue—or even Carter’s happy ending of maternal rescue. The story simply stops. Breillat has found another way to resolve the material, an imaginative way that locates power by proxy in the voice of some other, later Blue Beard’s potential-someday wife and victim: the child Catherine. It is time for a woman to enter a marriage equally so that nobody else has to rescue her. Her sister, on the other hand, may need to keep her guard up.
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