Dominique Thomas and Lola Créton, in 'Bluebeard'

Dir. Catherine Breillat
(2010, Not Rated, 80 min)
★ ★

Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard is minimal to the point of flatness. Story-wise, I’m not sure what it’s about really. It alternates between France in the 17th Century and the 1950s, where pairs of young sisters are in different ways embroiled in the titular fairy tale. It leads, in an abrupt finale, to a twist of fate, but why is it twisting and what is Breillat’s intent? The sparsity of her style yields little emotional effect — neither wonder nor sympathy nor horror. It hangs on the screen but doesn’t take shape.

The fairy tale itself is terrifically macabre and might have produced a fearsome journey on the level of Pan’s Labyrinth. A girl named Marie-Catherine (Lola Créton) and her older sister Anne (Daphné Baiwir) are impoverished by the death of their father, and out of desperation Marie-Catherine must marry Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), who despite being very wealthy is unloved. He is rumored to have murdered his previous wives, but for the sake of her family she has no choice.

What I like about the Bluebeard character is how lonely he seems and how kind Marie-Catherine is to him despite the rumors. She has a good line about why she does not fear him: She is only afraid of monsters that hide. We come to understand why he needs her and why she has affection for him. But the story doesn’t build. The tension doesn’t escalate. It moves from scene to scene with the same moribund energy.

The modern scenes take place in an attic where another pair of sisters (Marilou Lopes-Benites and Lola Giovannetti) tease each other about the fearsome tale. Their names are Catherine and Marie-Anne. With this self-conscious doubling of names Breillat is clearly making a connection between these girls, and at a couple of pivotal moments their stories seem to commingle, but to what end I can’t say. At only 80 minutes it ends with the disappointment of still waiting for it to truly begin.