Women Who Knew Too Much: Talking About Bluebeard with Miriam Bale

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03/03/2010 3:40 PM |

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Tonight, Anthology Film Archives kicks off a weeklong series of films derived from Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” fairy tale, programmed by L contributor Miriam Bale. Featuring classic and rare works by Fritz Lang, Michael Powell, Ernst Lubitsch, Edgar G. Ulmer, Georges Melies and Charlie Chaplin, the series kicks off tonight with an advance screening of Catherine Breillat’s forthcoming adaptation. We emailed Ms. Bale a few questions…

You’ve said this series was inspired by a viewing of Breillat’s Bluebeard. How’d you come, from Breillat, to this collection of films? Were there any films you considered and then rejected? Was there anything else you wanted to show but couldn’t?

Well, after seeing the Breillat, I was talking about the Ulmer version (with another L mag contributor, Dan Callahan, actually) and then started thinking of the Melies and Lubitsch versions. It was the Lubitsch version that made me really want to do a series, though, because it showed how these similar themes could be handled so differently. In that version the Bluebeard is slain by driving him bonkers until he’s finally humanized. But the similarities are just as interesting. What do Ulmer, Lang, Lubistch, Chaplin, Powell and Melies have in common with each other that and also perhaps with Breillat? I have some theories—they all show these magical otherworlds but often in very earthy ways—but it’s the kind of thing that finds better expression through programming rather than writing. I hope to have a better sense after watching all these films back-to-back, but I think think these questions could lead to more questions rather than concrete answers. I hope so anyway.

I worked with Jed Rapfogel of Anthology on the series, and we both preferred to focus on these cinematic masters and guaranteed great films rather than go for a more comprehensive approach and include things like the Dmytryk version (a sex comedy with Richard Burton as a Nazi Bluebard!) or Bluebeard’s Ten Honeymoons (by Myles Wilder, Billy’s lesser-known nephew.) We almost weren’t able to get a few of these films, but luck and some nice support for the series saved the day, so we thankfully did get everything we wanted. Actually, I would have loved to screen the Pina Bausch ballet version, but I didn’t think anyone would have come.

In its layered structure and in its tone—a sort of hushed, awestruck, cautious pacing, like it doesn’t know what it’s going to find as it approaches this story—the Breillat film seems to permit multiple readings of the myth, drawing out and encouraging possible sympathies and interpretations. 

That’s one of the most interesting things about the way the myth is interpreted. It’s this story of a murderer but almost always interpreted as a love story. It’s about a man who would rather murder the one woman who finally understands him than live with this loss of power, with his vulnerabilities exposed. Breillat really emphasizes the tragedy of this love story. And in her version, as in many of the others, it’s hard to tell if it’s more about her or about him. It’s a really interesting tension. But what Breillat’s version does most brilliantly is, as you allude to, is presenting the relationship of the tale to the two girls who are reading the tale. There’s a lot of identifying, merging, role-playing and slaying of role models, as there are in some of the best feminist filmmaking.

Notably, Breillat’s Bluebeard film is the only one in the series to be directed by a woman. How does her film stand in relation to the others in the series?

Well,  there’s another version directed by woman, Jane Campion’s The Piano. (I knew from working on a Campion series, though, that there are no decent prints of The Piano. It’s unfortunately a surprisingly common fate—and a bit of crisis—for classic films from the last twenty years.) The Campion is a subtle version of the story, as much a reaction to the Angela  Carter version of the story, “The Bloody Chamber”, as it is to the original Perrault fairy tale. It’s interesting because there have been whole studies done on feminist literary interpretations of Bluebeard, and there are many. These studies often indicate that part of the appeal of the story to women might have something to do with the assumption that it was a “women’s tale”, an oral tale passed on from woman to woman, before it was written down by Perrault. So the dual gender ownership that I mentioned before makes sense. So, when more than a handful of women direct movies, it’s likely that there will be many more feminist film versions, at least in equal number to the literary interpretations that already exist. Campion and Breillat are probably the next wave, a hundred years or so after the first male-directed versions emerged.

Also the origins of this myth as a women’s tale also makes the relationship of the girls telling the story to each other very significant. As you mentioned, it’s as much about the myth as an interpretation of it. It’s about sisterhood, in a micro and macro sense. (A common theme for Breillat, who has a film called A ma soeur!) One of the reasons I think this is her best film yet is the ambiguity about which is the story and which is the story-within-the story; those girls reading the story seem more storybook style, less real, than the tale itself.

Since you mention Angela Carter, I wonder if you’d care to comment on the Bluebeard story—and many fairy tales in general—as being stories about “the getting of wisdom,” the processes by which young women acquire an understanding of the world.

I’ll be honest—I’m not really into fairy tales in general. (Though, who knows, I may change my mind when Breillat makes her version of “Sleeping Beauty”, which is apparently her next project.) There’s another interesting element of Perrault’s co-opting of the original folk tale: It had been much more magical originally but he, as a Bluebeard scholar described it, “rationalized away” the fantastic. It’s very much about real people trying to maintain a balance of mystery and power, while at the same time having their vulnerabilities exposed. But that’s just one among many fascinating themes. Some of these filmmakers see it as a perfect analogy for the lonely fate of an artist. Ulmer, especially, was obsessed with making a Bluebeard film, and made his version about an artist as trapped between capturing someone’s soul or puppeteering people. (He created a fairly elaborate and beautiful puppet theater story-within-the story for his low-budget film.) You know, one thing that makes fairy tales work so well in the movies is their length. They’re rich with visual details, odd relationships, and ambiguous metaphors, but they’re short. That allows room for all these directors’ personal obsessions to come through boldly.