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Almost a decade ago, Catherine Breillat, one of contemporary cinema’s great provocateurs, gave us Fat Girl (À ma soeur!), a disturbing and graphic look at the pitfalls of adolescent sexuality from the point of view of a pair of young sisters. With her latest film—which recently had its North American premiere at the New York Film Festival—Breillat has returned to the subject of little girls playing with desire: Bluebeard is a very Breillat version of the well-known (and famously violent) bedtime story, about the beastly nobleman who cuts off the heads of his many wives, as well as a film about the sexual politics of fairy tales. And though at times it is a fastidiously faithful adaptation, it has a tantalizing, even hilarious twist: a wraparound device in which two very young contemporary sisters read the gruesome story in their attic and provide commentary. We sat down with Breillat while she was in town for the festival and discussed sibling rivalry, adolescence, and fairy tales. —Michael Koresky
Like Fat Girl, Bluebeard is a film about the power dynamics between sisters, both the little girls reading the fairy tale and the sisters in the story itself. Are these taken from your own sibling relationships?
After Fat Girl, my sister was very angry with me. And that has only ended now with Bluebeard. She’s seen the film and finds it magnificent, and we’ve been reconciled. But the problems between sisters are very complex. They deal with jealousy, with love, with rivalry, and their relationships are even more difficult in the teenage years, when sexuality is just coming out. It’s more complex because one of the two always seems more desirable, more attractive, while the other sister is more in the background, more of an observer, as you see in Fat Girl. The younger sister inevitably thinks she’s more intelligent than the older sister; when I was a young girl I was convinced I was far more beautiful than my older sister, and it was only as a teenager that I realized that she was far more attractive, and that was a big disappointment.
These relationships end rather shockingly in both films.
It’s normal that the younger sister wants to kill off the older sister [laughs]. Because we were so angry at each other after Fat Girl, I could take my gloves off with Bluebeard. And now after Bluebeard, we love each other again, so life is very contradictory and unpredictable.
The modern sisters in Bluebeard seem to have different ideas about sexuality—the younger is more curious and confident than the older. Are you still identifying with the younger sister?
The older sister has a very romantic vision of love—she’s old-school, if you like. She has the perspective that many young girls had when I was growing up, which is obsessing over the ring, the beautiful wedding dress, and getting married one day. Whereas the younger sister is very different: she’s much more modern, reflects a time when we are much more open in discussing sexuality with children. So she knows a great deal, but she mixes things up in her own manner; she fantasizes with an unreflective delirium, a flow of fantasies. She’s not as interested in this idea of marriage as between a man and a woman and living happily ever after as she is, for instance, in homosexual marriage, where people get married because they are in love. She’s also more knowledgeable, because the younger sister is a fantastic actress. She was five and a half years old, but she understood everything, she was able to read perfectly, and when she came on set she knew her lines by heart. Both of the girls could do five takes of the scene, one after another, without losing their liveliness, any pleasure they took in the scenes, any of the sense of grace and naturalism.
Speaking of naturalism, your 2007 period piece, The Last Mistress, had a visual realism to it, but Bluebeard is heightened, artificial, almost like Rohmer’s Perceval or Bresson’s Lancelot du lac, almost like children playing dress-up.
Yes, The Last Mistress is realistic, except what concerns the character of the mistress herself, who is shot like a star from the forties or fifties, like Marlene Dietrich in Blonde Venus. But when you’re making a fairy tale, you can be anything but realistic. Children love to wear disguises, and they project themselves through the disguises. Today, fairy tales are about marketing—kids put on costumes of Superman or Spider-Man. But if they didn’t have those images, they would turn to disguising themselves as knights or fairies.
Bluebeard is a fairy tale, and fairy tales are often violent and deal with violent sexuality. Do you feel the fairy tale has been perverted or softened by the Disney versions?
I don’t mind if children see the Walt Disney fairy tales, but only if they see them after reading the fairy tales first. I think it’s tragic. Especially The Little Mermaid, which is one of my absolute favorite fairy tales. It would be expensive to shoot that film, but I would love to. She loses her eternal life for a man who will never look at her. The original tale is sublime. I think Hans Christian Andersen wrote some of the most beautiful fairy tales. I was horrified by how she’s depicted in the Disney film, this absolutely vulgar character dressed in neon colors. The imagination of children is much less simple than that, and it’s important not to impose our well-intentioned adult visions and imaginations on children’s understanding.
Interestingly, Bluebeard showed on television in France late at night and got good reviews, but a number of reviewers alerted readers that it wasn’t suitable for younger audiences. The film wasn’t shown in prime time because the broadcasters thought the film was too violent. But both of the young girls in the film did see it, and they loved it. Is it because children are more intelligent than adults?