After appearing with Tyrone Power in The Black Rose (1950), the gamine Cécile Aubry (Manon) returned to France and co-starred with Pierre Brasseur in this ebullient version of Charles Perrault's famous fairy tale, first published in 1697.
Long a favourite tale with filmmakers, this 1951 version combines superb mis-en-scene with surprisingly lewd and sexually provocative dialogue, although it still unfolds like a compact, elegantly mounted play. Unlike other film versions in which the tale of a picky, wealthy, avaricious man and his myriad dead wives was reset in more contemporary time periods (most notably Edward Dmytryk's 1972 version, set in a Fascist Germany or Austro-Hungarian era), director Christian-Jaque flips back to a vaguely Medieval era where an entire village is cruelly at the mercy of the seigniorial Bluebeard, and his unpredictable, capricious whims.
After the death of his latest wife, word gets around fast that he needs another, and every father and brother scurries through town to drag every marriageable girl and woman into the safety of a hidden room or attic before a small army of wife-seekers storm into the village on horseback. Aline (Cécile Aubry), however, kinda likes the idea of being the bride of a money-bagged, sex-crazed despot, and makes it difficult for her boyfriend to keep her behind the curtains. Eventually the powerful seigneur marries Aline, and she slowly discovers the secret behind all those wives Bluebeard admits to having murdered.
Pierre Brasseur is unsurprisingly over the top, gnashing every line of dialogue like a teenage lion, throwing grandiose tantrums among more stilled actors, and occasionally glancing straight into the camera to involve the viewer in the play-like drama. Although director Christian-Jaque uses an optical effect to simulate the falling and rising of a stage curtain between scenes, the sets are extraordinarily detailed in their pretty décor, and Bluebeard's marriage and parlor scenes are populated by several elegantly costumed actors.
Of course, being a European production, sex is a more comfortable topic up front and as subtext, so it's rather startling how gleefully Aubry, playing a teenager, teases Bluebeard, even by performing a striking silhouetted striptease that leaves nothing to our imagination.
Black humour is heavily indulged, and is deliciously showcased in a montage in which Bluebeard recounts the demise of each wife like wounded and abused soul who simply had to dispose of each once-cherished companion because the level of personal affront and annoyance became unbearable for the blue-hued seigneur.
Using excellent exteriors for the village and Bluebeard's castle, Barbe-Blue was also photographed in Gevacolor, which produced unique pastel colours that suit the fairy tale atmosphere of this adult-oriented fable. The cinematography by Christian Matras (La Ronde, Lola Montès, and Paris Blues) is superb, and his striking compositions are enhanced by Gérard Calvi's lyrical orchestral score.
In a move typical of early European sound films, Bluebeard was shot with a French and German cast, with Hans Albers (!) playing Bluebeard alongside Aubry, plus German actors Fritz Kortner, Lina Cartens, and Arno Paulsen in supporting roles in the Germanic Blaubart, with a score by Werner Eisbrenner.
This is a small, lost gem deserving a deluxe DVD release, with both films coupled together, and a scholarly examination of Charles Perrault's tale, as it evolved through many diverse film interpretations. Pity no one's taken the initiative.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan