This morning, in the Guardian, reading the obituary of Cecile Aubry, a little known French actress of the forties who married a Moroccan pasha and devised a TV show called Belle and Sebastian, I learn she "played Bluebeard's seventh wife as a sexy teenager, even performing a silhouetted striptease that left little to the imagination". This suggests that Bluebeard plays a larger role in French popular history than ours. In her film, Breillat employs a framing device of two young girls who find a copy of the fairy tale in a loft, and read it together, and perhaps generations of young girls have done the same in French attics, without the attendant dramatic consequences.
All of which implies that there may be levels to Breillat's interpretation of the fable which I am ignorant of. In her version, Bluebeard's wife is no ingenue, but a clear-headed young woman who knows exactly what she's up to. Breillat would also appear to be playing off her reputation, intimating the possibility of congress between beauty and the beast, something which the film then artfully steers away from. There's nothing in the film to frighten or disturb little girls, on the contrary, it's a highly empowering tale. Perhaps the abrupt conclusion of the secondary story is added to ensure a greater bite to the film. As it is, the most intriguing aspect of the beautifully filmed period narrative revolves around the dynamic of the two sisters, a dynamic which is interrupted by the younger's marriage to Bluebeard.
Having said which, there's still something remarkable about the way in which Breillat succeeds in creating a period drama which retains a naturalistic feel. This is not an artfully conceived world; the lack of CGI or big budgets helps to maintain a down-to-earthness which is completely convincing, and within this context the girls themselves feel modern, in spite of their period setting. This helps to make the film beguiling, and though slight, one can envisage it being viewed as something of a minor masterpiece. Nevertheless, it's hard not to hanker for the confrontational Breillat whose films stripped the veil of our modern day sexual mores; one hopes she's not in too much danger of mellowing.