Release Date(s)1963 (September 14, 2021)
Studio(s)Embassy Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B-
- Extras Grade: B
Despite its English-language title, Claude Chabrol’s 1963 film Bluebeard isn’t an adaptation of the classic French folk tale immortalized by writers like Charles Perrault, but rather a retelling of the true story of serial killer Henri Desire Landru, who preyed on multiple women during World War I. (To be fair, he was nicknamed “The Bluebeard of Gambais,” but the original French title for the film was simply Landru.) It’s the same story immortalized by Charles Chaplin in his controversial 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, though Chaplin’s version strayed much further from the facts. Bluebeard is still somewhat fictionalized, but it portrays the real individuals and events with a fair amount of accuracy. The similarities were close enough that Landru’s only surviving victim, Fernande Segret, successfully sued the production for failing to obtain her permission to depict her on film.
The screenplay was by novelist and playwright Francoise Sagan, whose works have been frequently adapted to film, but this was one of her few actual screenwriting credits. Her script traces Landru’s criminal career from beginning to end, including the manhunt that led to his arrest, and concludes with his trial and execution. Charles Denner played Landru, and Chabrol’s muse Stephane Audran played Segret. (Chabrol and Audran were married the following year.)
There’s the vaguest of political messages in the film, with the French government using Landru’s trial as propaganda to distract the people from anger over the Treaty of Versailles. In his own way, Landru was the ultimate war profiteer, taking advantage of women who had been left alone while the men were off fighting; he’s undone when the armistice is signed. Chabrol and Sagan don’t really delve into Landru’s motivations, though they presaged Breaking Bad in how they show that while his ostensible purpose may have been to make money to provide for his family, he really did it for his own satisfaction. Landru’s coldly calculating misogyny is indicated through his overreaction to the biblical story of Delilah, and also during his trial. He only acknowledges having killed an animal, and when one of his questioners responds that anyone who strangles animals can also kill a human being, Landru replies, “I thought this case concerned women, commissioner?”
Since Landru protested his innocence all the way to the guillotine, Chabrol chose to treat his guilt somewhat ambiguously. None of the murders are actually shown on screen, and even the disposal of the bodies is treated symbolically. Chabrol only shows Landru working his full confidence game toward the beginning of the film, and then handles it elliptically from that point forward. Freeze frames, repeated music, and glimpses of the ever-present furnace stand in for the rest. Those also act as distancing devices, as does the film’s blackly comic tone. There are running jokes, such as an English couple who are disturbed by the smell from the furnace, and there’s even a touch of slapstick, with the police sometimes looking like the Keystone Cops. Chabrol is often considered to be the most mainstream of the French New Wave directors, but films like Bluebeard prove that he wasn’t quite so easy to pin down.
Cinematographer Jean Rabier shot Bluebeard on 35 mm film using spherical lenses, and framed at the 1.66:1 aspect ratio for its theatrical release. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray features a 4K restoration taken from the original camera negative. One caveat is that there’s a fair amount of optical work in the film, including freeze frames, wipes, and dissolves. That means that the affected shots do look softer than the surrounding material, and since there’s so many such effects, it’s a significant portion of the running time. Aside from that, the image looks reasonably detailed, with only minimal damage, and natural grain. The contrast range is limited, which gives the film a somewhat flat appearance, but presumably that’s accurate to the intent of the stylized cinematography—the color timing is equally muted.
Audio is offered in French 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with removable English subtitles. It’s a clean track, with clear dialogue, and the score by Pierre Jansen sounds good.
The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary by Kat Ellinger
- The Champagne Murders Trailer (SD – 2:29)
- Le Doulos Trailer (HD – 2:25)
- Alphaville Trailer (Upscaled HD – 1:21)
- Diabolically Yours Trailer (SD – 3:31)
- Max and the Junkmen (SD – 4:05)
Film historian Kat Ellinger is the ideal person to do the commentary for a film like Bluebeard. She’s more than willing to admit that it has issues, and she refers to it as Chabrol’s strangest and most frustrating film from his Sixties period. While Landru himself may have been misogynistic, the film really isn’t, and she always does a great job of deflecting inaccurate accusations of misogyny. (Her visual essay on Arrow’s Don’t Torture a Duckling Blu-ray is a fine example of that.) She covers plenty of ground regarding the production of Bluebeard, its themes, and its style—in the latter case, she notes how it was stylistically different than Chabrol’s earlier films; deliberately artificial rather than realistic. She spends time analyzing Chabol’s position within the French New Wave, and the differences between him and the other filmmakers who were associated with the movement. The ones who had been his colleagues at Cahiers du cinema turned on him when he started exploring commercial genre films, and she points out how hypocritical they were being since they had lavished praise on directors like Alfred Hitchcock for doing the same thing. This is a good commentary track for those who may be on the fence regarding Bluebeard—it may not change your mind, but it will make you think.
Bluebeard does actually share one key fact in common with Monsieur Verdoux. Both films were box office failures, and both damaged the careers of their directors. But while Verdoux has been reassessed over the decades, Bluebeard hasn’t quite received the same love—yet. Hopefully, Kino’s Blu-ray will help change that.
- Stephen Bjork
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