1.) Crimson Peak
Crimson Peak, the 2015 gothic horror film by Guillermo del Toro, is an absolute delight. It’s moody in that singular del Toro fashion, heavy on ooze and ether. And it follows a familiar story: a young orphan marries a foreign count whose ancestral estate hides a dark secret. The bride is allowed free reign of the house, with the exception of a single locked door. This is, of course, the Bluebeard story, based on the seventeenth century French fairytale immortalized by Charles Perrault. In the classic Bluebeard tale, the young bride steals a key to unlock the forbidden door and finds the bodies of the evil count’s previous wives. In most iterations, Count Bluebeard discovers the girl and strangles her as well. Sometimes she escapes this fate through outside intervention. Simple, yet suspenseful, this story of a young bride in danger is one of the classic Hollywood fascinations.
2.) Bluebeard (1901), Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife
The earliest is terrific, a slapstick short by Georges Méliès from 1901. It’s strange, macabre, and, as the bride enters the cabinet with the former wives, shockingly violent. Spritely demons recall the incubus from Henry Fuseli’s 1781 oil-painting The Nightmare.
In 1923 Sam Wood directed Gloria Swanson in Blubeard’s Eighth Wife, a silent comedy now lost to time. It’s easy to imagine all kinds of slapstick from Woods, known to some as “Sammo,” the fifth Marx Brother, for his legendary directing of A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races. More than anything else, this film probably predicts the 1938 remake.
A screenplay by the writing team of Charles Bratchett and Billy Wilder, also responsible for Ninotchka (1939) and Ball of Fire (1941), and directed by the singular Ernst Lubitsch, produced one of the great installments of the Bluebeard theme: Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938). Following his collaboration with the great émigré director, Wilder hung a sign above his own door that read “How would Lubitsch do it?” When they worked together, there was nothing quite like it.
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife stars Gary Cooper and Claudette Colbert and is an on-again-off-again romantic comedy and war of the sexes. It’s lovely and evocative of that signature Lubitsch touch. Cooper plays an impulsive playboy millionaire who has breezed his way through seven marriages. Colbert is the daughter of a penniless marquis, courted by Cooper and determined to reform him.
Cooper is charming as the imperious millionare scandalizing merchants: “I only want the pajama shirt, I don’t sleep with the pants.” And Colbert can give just as good as any. To Cooper: “You don’t look like a martyr to insomnia.” Or, “I wish someone would tell you what I really think of you.” The pleasure of this film is the way each actor sets out to tame the other, through tricks and plots (onion breath and straitjackets). And though Gary Cooper takes Colbert over his knee and spanks her, he doesn’t get the last laugh. Lubitsch had a great sense of humor about sex and relationships, and this stands out in all of his films, shining like a gift. This humor undermines any maudlin themes of despair and death commonly associated with Bluebeard, and reminds us that all of the high drama between two people just doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
3.) Rebecca, Suspicion, and Notorious
The next few years saw several Hollywood iterations of the Bluebeard myth. In 1940 and 1941, the story played out across the face of Joan Fontaine. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock directed Fontaine and Laurence Olivier in what is probably her most famous role: Rebecca. The film follows Fontaine as a beautiful ingénue, smitten by a handsome and brooding English lord, Laurence Olivier. After a happy courtship, Fontaine discovers Olivier and his sinister housekeeper Mrs. Danvers to be obsessed by the memory of his first wife Rebecca. The seemingly inevitable escalation of events draws the characters towards a fiery and chaotic climax. In Suspicion, Fontaine plays an heiress wracked by doubt regarding her playboy husband, Cary Grant, and his sinister past. When an enemy of Grant’s disappears under mysterious circumstances, she fears the worst. The climax arrives with Grant offering his new bride a glass of milk steeped in murderous potential.
Hitchcock told Truffaut in their 1962 interview that the image he presented as Cary Grant as profligate gambler and womanizer had so shocked the studio (RKO) that the first cut had been DOA. Grant was Hollywood’s darling leading man. But the final cut, though not as shocking as Hitchcock may have once desired, remains impressive and enormously disquieting. The power of the film is due to casting: Grant is creepy and petty, and Fontaine exudes grace.
Misogyny has been a persistent although ambivalent aspect of modernism—from Poe’s famous “The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.” to Hitchcock’s “Torture the women.” In Bluebeard stories, this violence arises to mixed ends. In Men, Women and Chainsaws, film critic Carol Clover famously suggested that 80’s slasher films provided a space for teenage boys to empathize with the young heroines, and thereby experience a sort of imagined gender bending. Suspicion and Rebecca might act similarly, casting a suffering heroine, with Grant and Olivier assuming the role of a monster. This could nudge mainstream audiences, men and women alike, towards the heroines, holding up a mirror to male violence. But there is still a lot of misogyny in the nudge. Hitchcock returns to Bluebeard again in Notorious (1946), including a scene where Ingrid Bergman steals a key to access a locked room in her new husband’s estate in one of the great suspense sequences in film history.
4.) Bluebeard (1944)
A year before he directed the quintessential noir Detour, Edward Ulmer made a version of Bluebeard (1944) set in Paris, starring John Carradine as a puppeteer and artist possessed by a dark compulsion. He strangles the women that pose for him. Much like Suspicion, Bluebeard was produced by RKO and survives in a heavily redacted version. But even still, there are several violent scenes of strangulation, always enacted against very young women.
5.) The Secret Beyond the Door…
Joan Bennett began making films in the studio system at age 13. And by the time Fritz Lang directed The Secret Beyond the Door… (1947), they had already collaborated on two masterpieces The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Even so, Bennett was still very young for this unambiguously named Bluebeard treatment. And though it doesn’t take advantage of her range, or her particular strengths (she’s best when she’s mean), Lang evokes a shadowy version of this classic young woman in danger story.
In many ways, the essential modernist detective noir set-up involves an act of violence enacted against a young woman. Imagine the Lady in the Lake, Twin Peaks, or Laura. The modernist compulsion, to catalogue, to solve the mystery with the information at hand, often plays out in a frame of patriarchy. Collecting information, deciphering information, solving the mystery of the dead girl, drawing on various broken streams of scattered narrative, this is the modernist tradition of mystery, but none of this problematizes the fact that there’s a dead girl to begin with. The conversation presupposes a chauvinist brutalism.
In his terrific examination of murder in art and modernism Being Given, 1 Degree Art, 2 Degrees Crime: Modernity, Murder and Mass Culture, scholar and critic Jean-Michel Rabate looks at this strange persistence.
The crux of this tradition, exemplified by the Marquis de Sade, is the connection between negativism and eroticism, and the way this influences art. Just as Sade identifies the transcendental pleasure through destruction of totems, “It has pleased nature so to make us that we attain happiness only by way of pain,” and the experience Bataille identified as the moment of continuity in an otherwise discontinuous world experience, what Lacan identified it as juissance; the idealization of pleasure through destruction often reproduces as “noir” imagery, misogyny, and violence against women. I’ve written more about this elsewhere on this site here and here.
As any avant garde demonstrates, the power of negativism is subverting the status quo, or the dominant language culture. Simply put, art creates new spaces, and touches aspects of the sublime. And this kind of negativity, and transcendence through negativity is similarly common across religious traditions. Sacrifice, epiphany, ecstasy and enlightenment reflect movement towards alternate worlds. This negative compulsion, as demonstrated by Sade, is mirrored by eroticism, the death drive that Freud identified as a movement towards love and death. So destruction or deconstruction is a foundational compulsion for any vital art, stemming from the same kind of erotic force that plays out in the sexual relations between people. But erotic compulsion creates an interesting challenge for any avant garde: how to articulate an aesthetic that does not just reproduce misogyny? And this is not simple, especially as artists promote free-speech and fight the influence of censorship. Aberrance can be nasty, but it’s necessary in a free language culture.
6.) Herzog Blaubart’s Burg, Bluebeard (1972)
After a certain point, virtually all of Michael Powell’s films have entered into the canon of cinema classics. The Red Shoes, a highly surrealistic story of a ballerina, is widely considered one of the great cinema achievements of the last century. His Bluebeard, 1963’s Herzog Blaubart’s Burg is not the same kind of achievement. It’s an adaptation of Bartok’s opera of the same name. The indelible aspects of this film come in a strange other worldly set design that envelopes Judith as she ventures deeper into Bluebeard’s castle.
The 1972 Bluebeard directed by Edward Dmytryk with Richard Burton in the titular role hits some of the same psychedelic notes, in a sloppy 60s go-go farcical sendup of the count and his wives.
7.) Bluebeard (2009)
Catherine Breillat’s Bluebeard is the first installment in an intentional project to examine the strange violence of fairytales. Breillat has always been a maudite and a sort of cinema savant, her first film A Very Young Girl is based on a novel that she published at age 17.
Her Bluebeard frames the story as being read by two young girls, a nice touch, emphasizing the way this legend is conveyed to children, influencing perceptions about gender from a very young age. In the film, two sisters who have just lost their father, attend a banquet at the castle of Count Bluebeard. The Count immediately fancies the younger sister, and marries her, despite her lack of dowry.
It’s a gorgeous and alarming film. And Breillat’s direction highlights some of the savagery of feudalism as well. Lola Creton was only fifteen when she starred as the young bride, and she looks even younger. This kind of age difference is a great example of the way Breillat is explicit in her treatment of violence against women. And though the Count is eventually decapitated in this version, it’s difficult to see the girl as an avenging heroine. Her participation in this ultimate act instead feels like a further debasement. And so this film plays like a tantalizing trainwreck, instead of just eroticizing violence against women, it forces viewers into complicity with the violence. Much like Bolaño’s “part about the crimes,” this installment forces modernist mystery down our throats. Of course, the sad and strange result is that we don’t necessarily just choke, because there’s another kind of enjoyment in swallowing hard.