Sex is a Hen Decapitated: Bluebeard and the Eroticism of Catherine Breillat
by Erich Kuersten
The ancient tale of Bluebeard is rife with archetypal resonance for the budding feminine psyche: it's a rite of passage myth, a map of patriarchal oppression's mine field, an initiation into sexual maturity, where the fear of pain is enough to make actual pain a relief in contrast; a color-symbolic dream where the blood of menstruation anxiety (the redness of the clitoral "riding" hood) and the swollen purples of honeymoon savagery (the black and blueness of the groom's bristly beard) mix and match. Like many fairy tales centered on a young girl, it encodes the onset of menstruation into a Pandora's Box moment of discovery, from which innocence can never return, leading inexorably into the scary rites of the marital bed, the agonies of childbirth, and so forth. Do we not, in associating white for virginity and purity, forget that red means the alchemical opening up of that purity into the raw violence of procreation? So what does that third color of the French flag--blue--represent? Naturally, the cooling rescue of death--or rather as symbolized in the 'bloody chamber' where all the previous brides are stored, a suspended animation, a sleeping beauty status wherein the enslaving agonies of childbirth and old age are forever kept at bay, in short, the blue represents frozen death and timeless decadence, pleasure and a disruption of the natural enslavement process of patriarchy. Bluebeard postpones sexual relations in order to keep romance forever young.
The coming of age girl myth tends to focus on the moment of the first dripping eradicable red stain, one that no amount of Clorox will undo. Such a moment--loss and gain coagulated into one crimson blotch --seems to obsess French director Catherine Breillat, a female auteur as detached and horrified in her existential search for meaning as her fellow Frenchmen Gasper Noe, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Claire Denis [note from Michael Benton: Denis is a French woman]. But as Breillat is a woman, her take on femininity is free to delve much much deeper into waters too cold and dangerous to ever be known to men. Eagerly complicit with the grotesque truths of feminine sexuality, Breillat's eyes are not blurred by the glamor and beauty that hypnotize most male directors. Rather than 'fall' for the genetic con job of desire, she focuses on her gender's fascination with the gross otherness of the male body, and vice versa - she wants to explore her own body--stripped of its veils and glamor-- through male eyes. Men after all aren't as obligated to be beautiful. They're position as desirable or beautiful is seldom considered in a marriage. If a woman can't learn to love ugliness, she never gets a prince and stays forever turned off; the beast stays a beast.
For his part, when Bluebeard spots the telltale blood stain on the key to the forbidden chamber, he is sad and disappointed, once again his bride has been unable to remain 'unopened' and so must be literally opened, as in decapitated. But Breillat's crafty beauty knows to stall, to feign compliance with her impending death on certain conditions, and to seek help from the passing musketeer/woodsman(the woodsman gets all the girls because he's already 'slain' his own wolf). If she merely screams and cringes, she's devoured. This is a valuable honeymoon lesson considering the absurdly young marriage ages of our forebears, one surely told by moms of old: do not resist or cringe when your new husband advance; instead, flatter, and stall him. If he will but relent today he shall get double tomorrow, and so on until a nice woodsman can rescue her, or she can develop enough that her deflowering is less of a painful, traumatizing violation.
The patriarchal readings of these tales runs counter to this approach, flipping the beast into a prince with a magic (phallic) wand and happily ever aftering the story before the children reading can learn that the magic wand's spell fades in a matter of hours. Soon enough the hair begins to creep back on their prince and his fangs grow long with the full moon. He seems to get uglier and more ill-tempered as the marriage marches on; that's the part Disney rolls its credits over. Only Breillat dares see not just the beast, but the frog, the vile toad still dwelling behind the sparkly eyes of the prince, and only Breillat nonetheless finds a way to love the thing, proverbial warts and all.
In her fearless approach towards this taboo subject, Breillat seems to possess an ambivalent--if not outright hostile--attitude towards sex. Her liberated female characters are often accused of being masochist subjects. But we have to dig deeper for her real reaction, perhaps a way would be to see her as the French female version of Lars Von Trier. But where Lars uses the D.W. Griffith / Sirkian soap opera woman's story in his savage deconstruction of innocence, purity, deflowering and sex, Breillat eschews any direct relation with 'woman's picture' trappings, to shoot for pure myth, looking past Griffith all the way back to the dawn of the printing press. Her cinema is--in Bluebeard literally--like the pages of a storybook that shows everything the normal books do not.
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