ACIDEMIC Journal of Film and Media

Sex is a Hen Decapitated: Bluebeard and the Eroticism of Catherine Breillat
HOME / #8: Brecht, Godard, Wood
#7: The Nordics
#6: Sex and the French
#5 Sympathy for the Devil
#4: Spotlight on the Spotless Mind Issue
#3: Mecha-Medusa and the Otherless Child
#2: Masculinity in Crisis Issue
#1: Drunk Feminism Issue
Submission Guidelines
Acidemic Films / Videos
Contact Us
Ze Staff


Erich Kuersten

The ancient tale of Bluebeard is rife with archetypal resonance for the budding feminine psyche: it's a rite of passage myth, a map of patriarchal oppression's mine field, an initiation into sexual maturity, where the fear of pain is enough to make actual pain a relief in contrast; a color-symbolic dream where the blood of menstruation anxiety (the redness of the clitoral "riding" hood) and the swollen purples of honeymoon savagery (the black and blueness of the groom's bristly beard) mix and match. Like many fairy tales centered on a young girl, it encodes the onset of menstruation into a Pandora's Box moment of discovery, from which innocence can never return, only slide inexorably into the scary rites of the marital bed, and from there to the agonies of childbirth. Do we not, in associating white for virginity and purity, forget that red means the alchemical opening up of that purity into the raw violence of procreation? So what does that third color of the French flag--blue--represent? Naturally, the cooling rescue of death--or rather as symbolized in the 'bloody chamber' where all the previous brides are stored, a suspended animation, a sleeping beauty status wherein the enslaving agonies of childbirth and old age are forever kept at bay, in short, the blue represents frozen death and timeless decadence, pleasure and a disruption of the natural enslavement process of patriarchy. Bluebeard postpones sexual relations in order to keep romance forever young.

The coming of age girl myth tends to focus on the moment of the first dripping eradicable red stain, one that no amount of Clorox will undo. Such a moment--loss and gain coagulated into one crimson blotch --seems to obsess French director Catherine Breillat, a female auteur as detached and horrified in her existential search for meaning as her fellow Frenchmen Gasper Noe, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Georges Batailles. But as Breillat is a woman, her take on femininity is free to delve much much deeper into waters too cold and dangerous to ever be known to men. Eagerly complicit with the grotesque truths of feminine sexuality, Breillat's eyes are not blurred by the glamor and beauty that hypnotize most male directors. Rather than 'fall' for the genetic con job of desire, she focuses on her gender's fascination with the gross otherness of the male body, and vice versa - she wants to explore her own body--stripped of its veils and glamor-- through male eyes. Men after all aren't as obligated to be beautiful. They're position as desirable or beautiful is seldom considered in a marriage. If a woman can't learn to love ugliness, she never gets a prince and stays forever turned off; the beast stays a beast.

For his part, when Bluebeard spots the telltale blood stain on the key to the forbidden chamber, he is sad and disappointed, once again his bride has been unable to remain 'unopened' and so must be literally opened, as in decapitated. But Breillat's crafty beauty knows to stall, to feign compliance with her impending death on certain conditions, and to seek help from the passing musketeer/woodsman(the woodsman gets all the girls because he's already 'slain' his own wolf). If she merely screams and cringes, she's devoured. This is a valuable honeymoon lesson considering the absurdly young marriage ages of our forebears, one surely told by moms of old: do not resist or cringe when your new husband advance; instead, flatter, and stall him. If he will but relent today he shall get double tomorrow, and so on until a nice woodsman can rescue her, or she can develop enough that her deflowering is less of a painful, traumatizing violation.

French Sex issue

The patriarchal readings of these tales runs counter to this approach, flipping the beast into a prince with a magic (phallic) wand and happily ever aftering the story before the children reading can learn that the magic wand's spell fades in a matter of hours. Soon enough the hair begins to creep back on their prince and his fangs grow long with the full moon. He seems to get uglier and more ill-tempered as the marriage marches on; that's the part Disney rolls its credits over. Only Breillat dares see not just the beast, but the frog, the vile toad still dwelling behind the sparkly eyes of the prince, and only Breillat nonetheless finds a way to love the thing, proverbial warts and all.

In her fearless approach towards this taboo subject, Breillat seems to possess an ambivalent--if not outright hostile--attitude towards sex. Her liberated female characters are often accused of being masochist subjects. But we have to dig deeper for her real reaction, perhaps a way would be to see her as the French female version of Lars Von Trier. But where Lars uses the D.W. Griffith / Sirkian soap opera woman's story in his savage deconstruction of innocence, purity, deflowering and sex, Breillat eschews any direct relation with 'woman's picture' trappings, to shoot for pure myth, looking past Griffith all the way back to the dawn of the printing press. Her cinema is--in Bluebeard literally--like the pages of a storybook that shows everything the normal books do not.

French Sex issue

Breillat's films can thus be revolting even as they illuminate our complex hypocrisy surrounding the abject: she likes horrific real time killings of animals, performed in settings where you can't really call it animal cruelty, though you'd like to, because it's what these people did and still do in rustic France: kill and then carve up, cook, and eat their prey. An honest modern day film that involves normal humans in present day should, in all fairness, be required to show a few seconds of slaughterhouse footage for every meat entree served, for example. We consider ourselves civilized based on what we do not see. If we don't kill our own food, we're compassionate and civilized. This is the most dangerous--and prevalent--type of hypocrisy and concentration camp style stockyards are the result of our see-no-evil monkeyshines.

In Breillat's films, here I'm thinking mainly of her recent period pieces, Bluebeard and The Last Mistress, sex and killing chickens and geese have a lot in common, a lot of blood (if you're a virgin) and a lot of "alchemical transubstantiation," i.e. what was once alive is now dead, so an unflinching farm girl's curiosity takes over: where did the goose's energy go? What's been lost and gained, after a girls' first sexual encounter? Is she not also, in a gynecological sense, ripped open? Does she not spasm in ecstasy and pain as the goose spasms in its death throes? Does she lose her soul or gain it, or is it merely warped and shaped anew?

French Sex issue

The linking of death with orgasm is a French construct -- only France seems to have enough of the latter to look that deeply. The petit morte concept is perhaps most heavily promoted with French philosopher/dirty book writer Georges Bataille, and his love of torture photographs and the evil religious persecution, defilements and torture of the Catholic Inquisition.

Part of what I think underlies this French attitude of unfazed acceptance of life's ugly underbelly is that for them sex has much the same deglamorized aura as drinking: it's not demonized so it has no 'kick' in and of itself. Just as French kids grow up with the wine at dinner and so never see drinking as some devilish rite of passage, they never think of sex as taboo, as a rebellion against parents, a fast lane freedom ride like it is in the States. What the French gain by deglamorizing alcohol, by introducing moderation at a young age, however, must be measured also by what is lost and that is where the answer to Breillat's curious questioning can be found.

For the French, teenage intemperance is less a given because children grow up learning how to 'sober up' after the glass or two of wine with dinner. If they have more than they can sober up from while doing their homework, they feel the dry tongue headache right then and there, post-dinner. To an American--and of course this is a huge generalization--once you start drinking, you're drinking, until bedtime.

I'm sure sex has some taboo aura in France among schoolchildren, but since the early 1980s, the nanny state USA has surely excelled at the harmful meddling in the affairs of its children - and the more parents and teachers try to repress sexuality, the more enticing and dangerous it becomes. Like drinking, sex's forbidden aspect makes it a secret rite, the mark of a cool, bad kid, like a tattoo you get just to hide it from your parents. Learning about condoms and abstinence in high school health class by day, listening to parental lectures that evening, then sneaking out to do whatever they can get away with at night, kids learn early on that what adults say has little in common with real life, or even their own practices and core beliefs. If parents warn you away from something it must be good, and in the meantime they're offering nothing in return but a lot of knee-jerk micro-managing.

Since it's also so "adults only", our own parents' sexuality is blocked from our consciousness. We obscure our nudity, can't find the topless beaches, keep our pants on when walking down the street. If you've been to a beach where women take their tops off, maybe you've noticed that their allure drops significantly when they're just tanning and shuffling through their beach bags and not 'posing'; a bikini top back on mysteriously makes them hot again. Most Americans maybe never think about why that is, if they do and want an explanation, they need to turn to Lacan and his French cohorts, like Breillat.

Another aspect at work here is class, race and gender difference, which Europe accepts and we rigorously deny. Since there is such a denial of difference in this country, parents in America live a life of self-inflicted bondage, unable to express ugly evil toad-like thoughts, and thus the stack of forbidden fruit piles higher and higher as our privileges are stripped away in the name of equality, trying desperately to keep the lid on our own overflowing garbage heap head. Now in the states, no one can smoke indoors at all, children can't buy cigarettes until they're 18. I know schools where no one is allowed to bring in peanut butter in any form since a couple of the kids are allergic. As the repression tightens though, the repressed gains power. The fruit gets sweeter, and cheaper. Peanut butter sold behind the playground, measured out in grams in paper baggies.

French Sex issue

As the French don't repress as much, the fruit is less forbidden and hence less sweet. They need to really overdo it with violence to make the same dent in the old apron strings that an American kid can make just by getting high and having sex in the back of his parent's car at the drive-in. Being French, Breillat's heroines can not find their parental tie-severing blade hidden in her partner's phallus; it's just a penis, and sometimes rather small, ala the douche-bag young father-to-be in Romance. Perhaps just as freedom doesn't exist for the French in wine drinking, the phallus doesn't really exist for the French in a penis, as its omnipresence has robbed it of the mythic power, just as guns are just guns in the states and vibrators take the place of Paris' casual lovers and "bookmark boyfriends." There is no outlet for expression of the sacrificial demonic for these women except through genuinely demonic acts.

In Bluebeard, Marie (Lola Creton) relishes the idea of getting revenge--slitting the throat--of the repressive headmistress of their convent school, much to her sister's horror. Later Marie manages to stay cool with Bluebeard's blade against her throat and is thus able to summon help. The film ends with a long static shot of the girl standing above his head on a plate, seemingly lost and sad without her husband, yet calmly triumphant. In her lack of repression and repulsion, her refusal to depend on society's stock reactions, she wins it all.

Perhaps its this refusal to react 'normally' i.e. with revulsion, towards killing, eating, fornicating and so forth that inspires the barnyard killings Breillat shows in Bluebeard and her recent Last Mistress. It's interesting not least because it plays on our PETA-concerns and anxiety that the meat of these animals wont be consumed by the cast and crew (if it is eaten in a meta-textual sense we're 'off the hook' for witnessing it). Instead of a sin and a crime, it's merely the barbarous excesses of what Brecht referred to as "mankind is kept alive by bestial acts."

French Sex issue

But this horrific moment is of course--completely natural to real life--and justified by the foreshadowing of the text, the defenestration which we all know is coming--which in itself is justified through the narrative framework of having the story be read by two young sisters up in an attic, the one older but less intelligent one wincing with the fear of what's to come as she knows the story already - but do we? do we remember if the heroine lives or dies? A little like Red Riding Hood, or Goldilocks, there are enough variations on the myth that we're never sure which is the real one. Of course we might remember that for all her initial brutality, Breillat's feminist parables invariably show the woman--and her unknowable desire-- as conqueror.... but only after some ordeals that are enough to traumatize Americans, as the many aghast reviews of her Anatomy of Hell make clear.

The last shot of Bluebeard is a static composition of Marie looking wistful and unfocused, absently stroking the severed head of her late husband as it sits, Baptist-like, on a silver tray, implying the dance of the veils is complete and Salome victorious. Like the father lying dead in his bedroom who begins the film's action, the head here is not symbolic but literal, meant to call attention to our own revulsion, our chickenshit clinging to the safety bars overlooking the steep garbage and grave-covered hills of the abject subconscious. In Breillat's freely warped, fearlessly feminine take on desire, these patriarch's dead flesh is no more horrific than a roast goose for dinner, or a hot young lover boy... with a tiny penis.

French Sex issue

Go Breillat!


c. 2010 Acidemic / all photos c. their parent artist/studio

C. 2013 - Acidemic Journal of Film and Media - BFG LCS: 489042340244