Conte de Fesses to Conte de Fées

By James Norton

blue-beard-catherine-breillat-01.jpgBluebeard, 2009

Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard, a faithful rendering of the classic fairy tale by Charles Perrault, framed by the autobiographically symbolic device of a young girl, Catherine – also the name of the heroine – reading the story to her older sister in a 1950s attic, is apparently a departure from the sexually explicit provocations that have made her reputation, a shift from conte de fesses to conte de fées. But as this interview proves, ranging widely through territories of religion, narrative and desire, the simple tale is freighted with the same layered polemical energies of her best-known work. Breillat’s speech is still halting from a recent stroke and she had to interrupt the interview halfway through at precisely 11.30 Paris time to take a series of different coloured pills in a sort of lapidary ritual, but even this was treated with macabre humour: "Imagine if I had Aids!" She expanded on a bewildering array of themes with formidable analytical insistence and absurdist insolence, but was positively giggly much of the time, rather charming in one with such a steely intellect and uncompromising reputation.

James Norton: Did the experience of telling the story of Bluebeard to your sister influence your practice as a film director?

Catherine Breillat: Not the practice of my cinema but the inflection of the imaginary, the temptation to horrify, to overcome one’s fear as both an ironic transgression and an attraction.

JN: Is the film for you a work of fiction or a myth?

CB: It's a myth and then it's also a tale. Myths also an essence, which links them to something ancient which is essential. And while Perrault certainly has popular appeal, but several critics have pointed out that he was greatly influenced by Gilles de Rais, that lord of bloodlust who was also Joan of Arc's best friend. It's the proximity of purity and death and absolute danger which is fascinating. And even if I didn’t know it when I was little, that it was inspired by him, even if he wasn’t an ogre, he wasn’t fit material for a children’s story. He's a serial killer, he's a man and I think that he is literature's first serial killer, there in a children's story. At that time children grew up very quickly like the little girl in the film who is very good at reading at the age if five and a half. I read it when I was five and a half, and I knew lots of children older than me who didn't know how to read. It's true that when you can read very early you both fear nothing and fear everything and above all you like imagining yourself overcoming every danger without a care because nothing can happen to you.

JN: There is a fairy tale element to some of your other films, for example Sleeping Beauty in Anatomy of Hell.

CB: In fact I am going to make Sleeping Beauty for Arte. At the Berlin film festival we talked about doing another fairy tale, or series of fairy tales for a certain producer, and I’m planning to shoot Sleeping Beauty. I’ve written the script. [The film will premiere at the Venice film festival].

JN: You have said that Anatomy of Hell was perhaps the end of a cycle. Have you begun a new cycle with The Last Mistress and now Bluebeard?

CB: No, let's say that I don't feel the need to defy what is forbidden about the image, to say that I forbid myself nothing and that what is forbidden touches my very deeply which an artist cannot spare herself even if it is dangerous for a career. Everyone has their views about me in France. When I made Anatomy of Hell, these dreadful reviews of 36 Fillette turned up. There are always people who adore me and those who detest me, and I think I’m the only French director where every time I make a film, they bring up the others, to settle their scores. This one might totally dislike Anatomy of Hell, they always re mind you that I filmed with Rocco Siffredi, who I wanted to cast in The Last Mistress. No French actress would do it, "No, I don’t want to work with Rocco Siffredi" and I’d say that it was a different kind of film, and I hired Rocco Siffredi as a straight actor. He’s much more intelligent than most actors. He’s a porn star, and I don’t like porn films at all, but I find he is... it’s obvious that he’s a good actor.

JN: Are you tired of these continual controversies?

CB: It’s a bit like adding the same old sauce to the... There is a continuity. I am an auteur so obviously all my films carry my signature, but each one is different, and when I start a film I’m always very anxious. I’m not a film director until I start the film. I’m not like a sportswoman. I haven’t been training. Between the moment when you finish a film and the moment when you begin another it’s always the same anxiety, you’re always making your first film. Now my first film resembles the last one and basically my films, even those which are adaptations like The Last Mistress or Bluebeard, carry my name. After all if a painter paints the same subject, uses the same story, as another, it’s still a painting by them and not by another, you can tell by the signature.

JN: Which visual art sources, which paintings or tapestries influenced the look of Bluebeard?

CB: The Middle Ages. I adore paintings from the Middle Ages, their colours are so dazzling, so transgressive.

JN: The scene in the forbidden chamber...

CB: The murdered women. It’s a scene I invented, because first of all in that castle they go down to meet up, which is already symbolic, it’s a descent in reverse and then there are these enormous beams in the attic, I put these enormous beams in a triangle, which has a kind of divine significance, a trinity, I showed three women, and it’s graphic as well, all that blood, which is what is beautiful about it. I didn’t want it to be naturalistic with seven women strung up like rabbits. Seven is also a symbolic figure, but in the tale it doesn’t have a symbolic value. The trinity is more graphic.

JN: In the opening scenes, religion predominates with the nun in the convent, then beside the father’s deathbed there’s an enormous grotesque crucified Christ on the wall. Did you want to comment on religious fundamentalism?

CB: Yes, obviously now we have increasingly to be worried about religious fundamentalism. To tell the truth I find that the only word that can save the world is the word of Christ. Mohammed recognised anyway, that if one follows the word of Christ one is a good Muslim. And he abolished the stoning of women, he reminded people of the importance of forgiveness, he reminded young people that God created mankind, he created then male and female. When St. Paul founded the Catholic religion he harked back to the Torah, and woman is basically not created by God, but created by man. As the Koran is based on the Torah it repeats it almost exactly, the style of the Koran and the style of the Torah is a literary question but the theology is ultimately the same. There is also a very beautiful crucifix in Anatomy of Hell, and she had in fact a Christ-like mission. She pretended to take everything for herself but in fact she knew everything, and it was he who led her to become human. It’s the sign of the fundamental parabola, the parable of Christ, that is to say that nothing can claim ascendancy over man in the name of God, and clearly these are the ravages of religion, these people who permit themselves to speak in the name of God and to punish in the name of God. Christ himself rose up against this, even though could have had absolute power over everyone he encountered, he did not use it. You may have power but you don’t have to use it, because otherwise you’re soon on the road to power, and for me it’s a magnificent example, he didn’t use his power, or he used it as a symbol. There’s nothing finer than that. At the same time religion turned into something else, as at the time of the Inquisition where people were burnt at the stake. It’s important to read the books. Muslims read a lot and one of the Surahs says that first of all to become a good Muslim is to follow the word of the Torah, follow the word of Christ or follow the word of Mohammed, all of which is to be a good Muslim, but Muslims like to say no, and they hate each other, but religions are religions of the book, and I that is very important, and that to be a humanist is to have faith in being human, it comes back to that. I find that it’s completely the opposite of integrationism. The Catholic religion is a very integrationist religion as well, and while Protestantism is a religion that is much closer to the word of Christ it too has become very selfish and intransigent. He didn’t give his life for a book that is a religion of sadness. Religion is about living with that which has been given to us, which is to say happiness in spite of everything. Life, in fact.

blue-beard-catherine-breillat-03.jpgBluebeard, 2009

JN: When the little girl says after marriage people become homosexual is it a joke or some kind of innocent interpretation of sexual difference?

CB: All the little girls’ dialogue was written, and I was stupefied that they knew it by heart. They could play around and do other takes etcetera but in the script there was just one thing which wasn’t written; I needed a child’s phrase that I couldn’t have written, that would be a surprise, so I asked them to talk about marriage. Anyway they’re at an age when they learn lots of things, like what homosexuals are, what sexual relations are, how children are born and all that, rational things, really. Clearly one of the sisters still believes in the ring on the finger, the beautiful dress, that is to say in my day when we didn’t know anything about sexual relations it really was the ring on the finger, girls used to say that you got pregnant by having a ring on your finger, they believed that at 14 or 15, but the little girl in her imaginary has this understanding that no one would have had at her age, it’s just something she’s dreamed up. We cracked up laughing when she started talking: "but no, after that they become homosexuals because they help each other..." laughing at how cute it was and how it shows that the imaginary is so much stronger that dry reality.

JN: I got the impression that the telling of the story directed the action of the film in the Middle Ages for example when the little girl says "I reflect" the next shot is the other Catherine reflected in the mirror. In your films we also see the characters’ point of view, the camera often takes their point of view. Is this a way of obliging the spectator to identify with them?

CB: It’s what I call the subjective reverse angle, which has posed a lot of problems for me. My assistant is fed up with it, my script supervisor, because I stamped my feet and said: "no, the character isn’t there because the character is the camera which is in their place. You can’t put the actor there because the camera would be on his chest. It was the same in The Last Mistress, the engaged couple were on the balcony but I didn’t put them there and everyone was pissed off with me: "but we need to see that they’re there." "But they’re not there because the camera has taken their place!" I now call that a subjective, if I lose their eyeline I’m in the shit because they no longer have an eyeline. Similarly, when the little girl talks about marriage it’s not their relationship with reality but their relationship with emotion that you see. Can one see reality? Everyone sees their own.

JN: Bluebeard’s body is enormous and imposing but it also seems rather feminine. Apart from his beard he’s hairless, he’s rather hermaphrodite and curvaceous. Is that the effect you wanted?

CB: He is a bit feminine. He’s also an ogre and a serial killer but even his voice and the way in which he trots along behind her with the little basket of mushrooms and everything has something feminine about it.

JN: Is that what you were looking for when casting?

CB I didn’t want him to be a caricature of a wicked man. There is also a great gentleness and a lot of femininity in that gigantic body.

JN: You once asked why men can’t desire liberated women and why they have to enslave them to desire them. What is your answer?

CB: Perhaps one shouldn’t say liberated because liberated implies that they were already enslaved. Why do men scratch away at the earth like a dog to dig up their bone? Women aren’t bones. Perhaps they have to have already buried the bone to have the desire to dig it up. Perhaps they’re right. It’s also false to say that I don’t like men because I show them with a masculine nature, which people find caricatured. The greatest seducer was Rhett Butler, it’s also men who are ultimately very macho who treat women with a certain casualness. It’s the interchangeable principles of good and evil which also create love and desire. In the same way vamps aren’t wicked women, but women of desire, and therefore fatal, of love in spite of everything, which we all aspire to and yet are wary of as a form of alienation, and it’s true that it is an alienation of the other. All of a sudden the other becomes more important than you. Everyone is scared of that, and rightly so, and everyone desires it. A man makes a woman afraid. But don’t we desire men who make us afraid? The strange, as in tales in which one desires or loves what is terrible. That’s how it is. To make men terrible isn’t to hate them. It’s precisely that which makes them desirable, it’s that which makes them tameable, the fact that the weakest can become the strongest, and the strongest can become the weakest. That’s what the Christ-like position always is, and I find that magnificent. It has always annoyed me when they say that I don’t like men. I like them a lot! And I like them in all their variety. I like very brutal men and I like ephebes a lot. Those who are called boys but not men, like counter-tenors but not sopranos. It’s a voice of crystal, completely masculine but with a hint of the soprano, particularly the English style, like Alfred Deller and James Bowman, they have a masculine nature but that voice of crystal. Andreas Scholl for example sings very well but for me he has a bit too much of the feminine and I like it when you can clearly hear the masculine, all the while having that strangely feminine voice. Ultimately all men have a feminine strangeness as well. Even the biggest brutes like Bluebeard, as you can see.

JN: Like the young man in The Last Mistress?

CB: Yes, he was so beautiful. One thinks that beauty is feminine but he isn’t at all effeminate. He’s a boy.

JN: Bluebeard says to Catherine at the end that neither he nor she can escape from the rule that she must die. Is that a commentary on the rules of fiction or a pretext for him to kill her?

CB: It’s in the tale. In the tale the key he gives her is the destiny of men and women. Her destiny is to go into the forbidden chamber. His destiny is to be obliged to kill her. Neither one of them wants to do the other harm, but it’s ultimately the man-woman principle. I think the tale says that, in a very strange way. There is no executioner, there is no victim. There is a destiny, which is the destiny if men and women.

JN: He gives her the keys. If he hadn’t given her the keys...

CB: Yes, he has to give her the keys, it’s an obligatory action. But he also comes back to cheat her because he doesn’t really want to kill her because she has the purity of Joan of Arc. And he comes back very quickly. He’s supposed to come back in a month but he comes back the next day, and she has already had time to open the forbidden chamber as soon as he left. You can tell that he’s overwhelmed, when he understands that. It’s like the prediction that the king would die near St. Germain. So he avoids all the places called St. Germain but finally he dies next to someone called St. Germain. That’s how it is. One can’t escape one’s destiny, so he’s extremely unhappy. That’s also why he allows her delays, which is also in the tale. And in fact he can’t resolve himself to kill her, he can’t be resolved with his destiny, which is to kill the woman. He has to do it, but because he keeps on deferring, he’s the one who gets killed. And she, who wants him to live, she sees his head, like the hanged women, sitting eternally on that plate with the same flesh, and still alive, with that proximity to death in which the soul has not yet left, and she caresses it with tenderness, to stop time, without sexuality, because what is forbidden in the tale is sexuality.

JN: At the end of Perrault’s tale there is a moral.

CB: Curiosity. Look what happens to the girl, and there is another one about those who disobey their husbands. You have to watch what happens to girls who are too curious. The second about girls who disobey their husbands, cheating them quite casually, is called for by the bourgeoisie who seek at least the appearance of preserved fidelity. But I didn’t want these morals. I needed the pure tale, without a moral but with just the symbolic meaning. With the moral it’s already more than a story.

JN: She doesn’t know beforehand that she can’t get rid of the trace of her transgression.

CB: Like MacBeth. It’s also very Shakespearian. Of course she doesn’t know. Perhaps the fault is ineffaceable, she can’t hide it. Also all religions, with are above all mythic, are unfailingly the same. They are what are called monotheistic at the beginning but there is no such thing as monotheism, it’s all the same, the world promises all these meanings which are all roughly homogeneous so we don’t know if what we see is reality. What is the mind? What do we see? What do we say? Is it a projection of the imaginary? We’ll never know.

JN: Is there an autobiographical element in the death of the sister at the end or an indication that life and chance are more dangerous than fiction?

CB: It’s both. The little girl forces the bigger one to listen, to make her cry, and making her cry obliterates the fact that she is the elder, and that is symbolised by the fact that she falls, that she dies and the second becomes an only child. It’s the dream of the second to become the first. At the same time they love each other and it’s the same as if the first is the man, stronger than the second. It’s she who takes control, and knows everything. She does everything retrospectively one year before the other, as always happens with sisters. As the second, I always had the right to do things on my own a year earlier than my sister had done had been permitted to do. And for my sister is was very humiliating to see that I was always a year ahead in everything. Before I could speak, she played at being my mother, but once I was her sister, there was a problem. As soon as I could stand up and started talking I caught up with her. There was a problem and she got angry with me when I made A Ma Soeur (Fat Girl) and we didn’t speak to each other after that. She was furious that I made that film. She thought it was an attack on her. However, when I made Bluebeard, in which symbolically she gets killed, she loved it, we were entirely reconciled!

JN: She didn’t like A Ma Soeur?

CB: She believed it was a spiteful attack against her, a kind of betrayal, that I despised her and ridiculed her. Not at all, as far as I was concerned. But it has to be said that in France the character of the older sister was pilloried because in France if you are beautiful you are stupid, and when you’re a teenager everyone goes "ah, she’s stupid because she was chatted up by a charmer at the beach" and when you’re older, even at 40, you wouldn’t mind being chatted up sometimes by much older ones who aren’t worth it. In England when Roxane [Mesquida] went there she started making excuses for the role she played, the role of the idiot, and we shut her up right away: "no, Roxane, Anglo-Saxon countries don’t have the same teenage culture. You’re not the idiot, Anais is still a child, and protected by her obesity which means she isn’t yet desirable. But the other girl isn’t an idiot because she hasn’t reached the barrier of desire. In all the Anglo-Saxon countries she wasn’t considered an idiot as she was in France, so my sister was angry and humiliated when the critics went wild over Anais’ character and thought that Roxane, the older one, was really the stupid one. Which isn’t true.

James Norton is a freelance writer and assistant producer on the BBC series Monty Don’s Italian Gardens.