George Méliès

film 13 of 70

Blue Beard

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 17, 2015

A masterpiece. Not for its times, or despite its limitations. But fully, unequivocally, thunderously. What a perfect subject for him! Dismemberments and all. The proscenium style shows and falls short in the first sequence, but those costumes and backdrops are so tremendous. And this method can’t just be dismissed, since at times the frame is so dynamic and the space so very nicely filled (in the second banquet; nice touch with the little boy at the end of the train). In fact the framing in these long takes are sometimes quite masterful (another funny little guy carrying something joke). There’s some terrific pantomime in the here-are-the-keys scene.

The Bluebeard myth has tended to elude me. But now, suddenly, I get it! This is another reason that literature is not just automatically better than movies. It’s a point that we can take from the theatre. New productions of familiar franchises give us different avenues of entry, different kinds of access, and deeper understandings. This is God in the garden, slaughtering us for one tiny and irresistible disobedience. Méliès further elaborates: the devil made her do it! His films are always fun and games and tongue in cheek, but those seven hanging women are both horrifying and pitiable. I don’t remember the angel from M. Perreault’s original (well…) rendering. Here is a very and multiply effective nightmare sequence. Blue beard’s homecoming is a bit blustery (it is true that comedy does sometimes register better than the dramatic in silent film).

Now a shock: for what I think is the first time the trick where Méliès match cuts and turns a person into a dummy is played not for laughs or showing off, but for fear and pity. They’ve created a character and fashioned our sympathy for her, so that when her prop proxy is dragged down the stairs and then gives way to a brutalized woman rising from the floor, you feel it!

This appalling event gives us an appetite for retribution. These rescuers are a deus ex machina, since there’s no way they could have known or come. Blue beard gets skewered, quite convincingly. At the end of the circus the various acts can come back for an eye-popping three-ring kind of climax. Here Méliès pulls out the stops but again, as before, he’s after more than just spectacle. Now the devil comes back; is it to aid his operative, or to taunt him? The angel returns to vanquish him. Then, and in connection, it is powerful and even shiver-inducing when the murdered women rise from a trap door to take care of our villain. It’s Hamlet’s ghost and the Commendatore, all in one (or seven). Unexpected! Amazing!

Rather than taking the villain to hell, the restored women march off with the handsome rescuers! Blue beard ceases even to be relevant. Talking about toppers: the set pieces are pulled and lifted to reveal an aureole of a curtain call, murdered women ensconced in marble halls with their consorts. Again, the threadbare isn’t, as you see the elegant magician recontextualizing his stage craft, and turning it into the apotheosis of cinema.