Bluebeard (The Cornfield #21)

The dude may be best known for his camera tricks and broad slapstick, but the films of Georges Méliès are also distinguished by their utter authority and cheerful confidence. There are no moments of uncertainty in the nine-minute-long Bluebeard (made in 1901, a year before the director’s Trip to the Moon), as the story hurtles along the outline of Charles Perrault’s famous fairy tale in a superbly-judged nine-minute trot. This is achieved with the customary-for-its-time visual allegiance to the stage as the basis for a photoplay; Méliès played around with movie sleight-of-hand while hugging the proscenium of the live theater, and Bluebeard unfolds in a series of stationary-camera scenes crammed with busy action and special effects.

The effects are dandy (imp exploding out of a large book, forbidden key growing in size, seven dead wives manifesting in mid-air), but the movie is also memorable for its humor. It’s all busy and crazy, yet the acting of a reluctant potential bride in the opening sequence is droll and witty, and a lesson in how focus can be drawn to a part of the frame and a joke or an emotion expressed, without bothering to cut to a close-up.

One does not know whether Méliès was hip to the loaded sexual imagery of the fairy tale, or whether he just knew that presenting a key that magically grew in size would be a potent grabber for his audience. But it works either way.

The biggest coup might be the bride’s entry into the forbidden chamber, which she cannot resist despite her cruel husband’s handing her the key to it (that touch being the story’s keenest appreciation of relationship dysfunction – don’tgointothechamberohbythewayhere’sthekey – even more than the fact of seven dead wives hanging there in the room). Méliès actually uses a creepy overlap-dissolve to go inside the chamber, where we see the suspended ex-wives in the dim light before the bride flings open the window to let the sunlight pour in.

If they are there; maybe she just imagined them because she wanted proof against the ugly husband. The director’s elaborate use of double-exposures makes so much of his imagery unreal, it could go either way. Maybe Bluebeard isn’t such a bad guy; maybe his physical deformity makes people imagine the worst about him.

The final tableau is a spectacular achievement and includes Bluebeard’s attempted murder of his wife, the breaking down of the castle doors, and the re-appearance of the images of the dead wives, who seem to be restored then to human form and paired off with courtiers, all while Bluebeard stands impaled against a stake. The breeziness of Méliès’s carries everybody off at the end, and even allows for a kind of curtain-call bow. And the whole thing is a little too boisterous and theatrical to achieve the clean mystery of the fairy tale, even if it completely succeeds as an illustration of the same.

It’s watchable here.

Movie Diary 5/19/2009

Food Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2009). Upton Sinclair would approve of this muckraking documentary, which might not contain much that’s new but certainly organizes the goods in a swift, sinewy way. And the chickens do not have sharp talons.

Night in the Museum: Battle at the Smithsonian (Shawn Levy, 2009). This time two monkeys slap Ben Stiller in the face, plus there’s some prime Hank Azaria riffing. (full review 5/22)

Bluebeard (Catherine Breillat, 2009). Not as forceful as Breillat’s previous costume outing, The Last Mistress, but still an odd variation on the fairy tale. The massive Dominique Thomas is a physical marvel in the title role. (plays in the Seattle International Film Festival on 5/24 and 5/27)