Bluebeard (Barbe-Bleue) 1901

Director: Georges Méliès

And here's a heartwarming bedtime story from those far-off days before anyone had coined the phrases 'domestic abuse' or 'repressed memory therapy'. In Méliès' gruesome retelling of Perrault's folk tale, the new young bride of the aristocratic Bluebeard is tempted by the Devil into entering a forbidden room. The awful demise suffered by her predecessors is revealed, and for her the worst is yet to come...

The nobleman Bluebeard coerces a reluctant young woman into being his eighth wife with the aid of her greedy father. He promises wealth and prosperity, and a grand wedding feast is prepared. Soon after they get married, Bluebeard has to leave on business. He warns his new bride that while she may roam his castle as she pleases, there is one room she is forbidden to enter. Later, tempted by a horned devil who springs from the pages of a book, her curiosity overcomes her. She unlocks the secret room and finds the corpses of her husband's previous seven wives hanging from the rafters...

Her pleas to her Guardian Angel are to no avail: the Angel tells her that it is her disobedience that has caused her undoing. Bluebeard returns, learning of his wife's indiscretion when he finds a bloodstained key, angrily threatening that she will suffer the same fate as his former wives. She escapes from her husband, and runs to her sister for help. Her sister calls their brothers to the rescue, who arrive in the nick of time, killing Bluebeard in a sword fight. The Guardian Angel brings the other brides back to life and order is restored.

Bluebeard pieces together several single-shot tableaux to produce what was - by the standards of the day - a relatively complex scenario. Although it was still single-scene 'trick' films that made up the majority of his output at the turn of the century, Méliès was busy refining and developing his own formula. Subjects such as Jeanne D'Arc (1899) or his version of Cinderella (Cendrillon, also 1899) employed all his usual devices over an extended narrative, thus building dramatic effect. All three of these films ran to ten minutes, longer than average for 1901. Back then, it should be noted, 'movies' were still primarily shown through fairground exhibitors, who preferred their product short in order to encourage a rapid turnover of customers.

While nominally a "féerie" (fairy film), as they were known at the time, Bluebeard qualifies for inclusion here on account of the sinister undertone not present in the escapist fantasies that Méliès is best known for. The familiar whimsical elements are still present - the mischievous devil that leads the new bride astray, or the slapstick antics of the cooks assembling the wedding feast (including a famous early example of 'product placement' featuring a bottle of Mercier champagne), but this time they are woven into a morbid story of death and revenge.

The psychological terrors of Perrault's fairy tales are shown in vivid detail. Witness the hanging bodies of Bluebeard's former wives, the bride tormented by visions of man-sized animated keys, and a climax where our heroine's husband drags her off by the hair with deadly intent (fret not - the actress was replaced here by a life-sized dummy). And there's a last flourish of sexual symbolism when Bluebeard is impaled at sword-point by one of his bride's vengeful brothers.

With this evidence, it's clear that Méliès' present-day image as a maker of light-hearted fantasies doesn't show us the whole picture. Around the time of Blue Beard, his studio was producing over twenty films a year in a variety of genres. Take for example his crime drama Les Incendiares (1906), which ends with the beheading of one of the titular criminals on the guillotine. Or more controversially, the documentary series L'Affaire Dreyfus of 1899, which was politically sensitive enough to be actively suppressed in some areas. But of all the films of Méliès' that still exist, Bluebeard is arguably the one that comes closest to actual horror.

Cast and Credits:
Georges Méliès (Bluebeard), Jeanne D'Alcy (The New Wife), Bluette Bernon (The Fairy)
Designer/Producer/Cinematographer: Georges Méliès , based on the story by Charles Perrault
Star Films, France
Running Time 10 mins

Georges Méliès - The First Wizard Of Cinema (Flicker Alley)

1 comment:

  1. Wow, I must admit... I think you might be my long lost evil twin brother. Or perhaps I'm the evil twin. No matter.

    Fantastic place you have here! I love the layout and your devotion to cinema's earliest horrors warms my black heart to no end. I'd heard of this picture before, but never knew Melies was attached to it. What a wonderfully grisly take on a ghastly fairy tale!

    You can bet that I'll be stopping by here many more times in the future.