Saturday, 17 January 2009

Barbablù / Bluebeard / Barbe-bleue / Blaubart

Why discuss Edward Dmytryk's Richard Burton vehicle Bluebeard in a blog dedicated to European popular cinema?

Well, for starters it's a French-Italian-West German co-production, with Italian co-writers, including Maria Pia Fusco, a frequent contributor to the Black Emanuelle series.

Then it's got an extensive list of Euro-performers, playing the titular characters' victims alongside the higher-billed US imports Raquel Welch and Joey Heatherton: Virna Lisi, Nathalie Delon, Marilu Tolo, Karin Schubert, Agostina Belli and Sybil Danning.

Then there's the quirky soundtrack by Ennio Morricone, which I can only describe as the giallo version of what Giu La Testa was to its spaghetti western predecessors, and the cinematography by Gabor Pogany.

Every frame is beautifully composed and lit

And, finally, there are certain intertextual references which suggest that Dmytryk had either seen some of Bava and Freda's films, namely The Horrible Secret of Dr Hichcock, Blood and Black Lace and A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, or if not that they were working from some of the same reference points.

It's the last aspect which is, of course, the most complex: when you're dealing with a mythic / fairy-tale / Gothic text, which Bluebeard is despite regardless of whatever period trappings the film-maker happens to give it - in this case a somewhat vaguely defined inter-war setting, with Bluebeard as a Red Baron style war hero and enthusiastic anti-Bolshevik cum fascist.

To wit, we've got the new wife who is too inquisitive for her own good, breaks the prohibition not to enter into the forbidden room, and thereby discovers the truth about her husband, that he has murdered his previous wives; there's also a hint of Poe's The Black Cat.

Bluebeard watches

What we've then got, however, is a distinctively modern take on the subject, through the foregrounding of Bluebeard's impotence and the way in which this wife then attempts to affect a kind of quasi-psychoanalytic talking cure on him so that she may avoid the fate that has befallen her predecessors. (Those who have seen Femina Ridens may also see something of a precursor here, whilst there's also the obligatory allusion to Psycho.)

The obligatory dark-room scene

The setting also allows for a mass-psychology of fascism type interpretation, in which the ostensibly normal, outwardly respectable man can be the real monster. Besides suggesting a connection with Dmytryk's own Crossfire, in which a returning GI murders a Jewish man in an ironic comment on the existence of fascist attitudes in the US itself - in the original source novel the victim was homosexual, a theme too hot for Hollywood at the time - it also recalls a comment made by Freda:

"I believe in a subtle, psychological kind of horror [...] My theory is that authentic terror can be attained with simple, common means. The most terrifying monster is the neighbour who cuts his wife's throat."

Accordingly one wife (Schubert) is murdered because she threatens to reveal the secret of Bluebeard's impotence; another (Belli) because she proves more whore than virgin; a third (Tolo) because of her proto-feminist and left-wing politics; and a fourth (Lisi) simply because, much like Laura Betti's character in A Hatchet for the Honeymoon, she's simply extremely annoying...

More than Five Dolls for an August Moon

Schubert's 'accidental' shooting during a hunting trip highlights another intertext, Renoir's The Rules of the Game, down to the blasting of assorted rabbits and other game animals, whilst the way in which Bluebeard accumulates hunting trophies to signify the passage of time recalls a montage in Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. (Both these are also, of course, films which also need to be read in relation to fascism.)

An abstract title image


Also amongst Bluebeard's trophies are abstract prints representing each of his wives. Taken from portrait photographs and manipulated, these also form the Saul Bass-style credits sequence to the film, pointing to the possible influence of Vertigo - as another film about obsession, amour fou and necrophilia - and the further mess of influences and intertexts.

The domineering picture of the dead mother

In giallo terms, meanwhile, the distinction between Heatherton's wife and her less fortunate predecessors is that she sees what they did not here: looking at the prints she starts to imagine faces within them, with adding eyes further confirming her suspicions. In other words, it's all about the problem of vision, of seeing things correctly.

Besides some of the murder set pieces, the other area where the giallo influence is most apparent is visually. Though Dmytryk's style is more restrained that that of Bava or Freda, the rich production design, with the the various rooms of Bluebeard's castle colour-coded, and expressive/neo-expressionist use of colour seem to come straight out of the Italian directors' playbook.


Anonymous said...

En obra de teatro "Barbazul" intervino en los años 70, Sara Mora

Anonymous said...

Is this available on DVD??

K H Brown said...

Yes, on R1 DVD: