Barbe-bleue / Bluebeard (1901)
I know, I know, 1901, but it only lasts 9 minutes, so try watching Barbe-bleue – a cinematic silent of a four hundred year-old fairy-tale-nasty. The hero? Bluebeard, a man seeking his eighth wife whilst feeling the vicissitudes of age: contempt of the young, demons, angels and the villagers hereabouts. Pfft. Kill ’em. Kill ’em all, beardy!
The film’s from the dawn of cinema. Oh yes. Well, okay, about six years after the dawn, but you can’t knock them for trying. Georges Méliès was an illusionist and proper stage show-off working at the Théâtre Robert-Houdin in Paris. A Paul Daniels of his day, he invented stacks of stage illusions and – having seen (and been refused use) of the Lumière Brothers cinematic invention – got his hands on an early camera and jumped into making short films. He produced something like five hundred over twenty or so years before fate and distribution deals forced him into penury. The content was wide: documentaries, dramas, comedies and féeries – French fairy plays that had become big in 19th century theatres whilst containing everything old Jack can’t stand: dance, mime, acrobatics and finalés characterised by visual effects and showy vignettes. But forgive Méliès the origins of his trade, he wrenched cinema into an art-form and, with Barbe-bleue, arguably (say film historians) made the first horror film ever. Mwahahahahaha!
Okay, Silent Steve got the DVD. He doesn’t much care for movies with characters, plots, close-ups or sound and it has become my duty to sit silently with him on a Sunday morning, curtains pulled, and tolerate early film folk mime like they’re diseased and succumb to transformational vignettes. Cards on the table, I’ve got a bit of a prejudice against silent films. I wasn’t even born when Barbe-bleue was touring the fairgrounds and music-halls of Europe, so, you know, that’s not good. I also had a close friend who died in a nasty mime-based accident (Slo-Mo Sam was pretending to open a window when someone shot him for being fucking irritating). Okay, that’s a lie. But… honestly… silent, black and white, from 1901?!?!
Whisper it: Barbe-bleue is 9 minutes of weird shit and giggles.
Old Bluebeard is not so much misunderstood as an unutterable shit who has worked his way through seven disappeared wives. He’s on the look out for the next one in a bizarrely mesmerising and over-wrought cattle market of rich people’s daughters. You can tell which one is Bluebeard, because Méliès goes for it in full Santa beard and dramatic flailing. People are scum, so one family flogs him their gorgeous daughter (you can’t tell as it’s all filmed about fifty feet from the action, but I’ve Googled and she was a bit of a looker: Jehanne D’Alcy, 35 and needing a husband). Méliès crams in the first known product placement in a film (look out for a not-so-subtle bottle of Mercier champagne) before Bluebeard goes on a day trip and gives Wife 8 the keys to the castle: go everywhere, he says, but not the forbidden rooooooooom…
What does she do? Well, you’d think she’d go straight for the room, but no. There’s a hesitation whilst a demon jumps out of a book in one of those sexy new special effects that dragged the common folk to these new film things. It really is bizarre. The thing bounces around like the stage-acrobat it really is, horns a-flopping and dancing with glee as the wife succumbs and goes into the room. The creature also has giant white underpants on (it’s an adult nappy-diaper thing, I kid thee not). This will make you laugh and leave you completely unprepared for minute 7 of this extravaganza. For what is in the dark, dank room? The lights come up slowly as the wife reaches around herself in a daze…
Corpses. Yup. Seven ex-wife corpses hanging in the dark. Really. Nice touch, I thought, Monsieur Méliès. Old Jack nearly choked up his crumpet. Silent Sam gurgled at the thrill of it all. Film censorship was born.
I’ll leave the last three minutes un-spoilered. There are joys to be had from jump-cuts, transitions and the all-new alignment of sets as people run out of one scene and into the next scene. But just you wait for the brutal dragging of a human-doll-jump-cut-thing and the return of the crazed and angry Bluebeard…
In modern terms, this is an appalling bag of shite, really, awful, but watchable for its inventiveness, coherent storyline and clever-clever special effects. At the time, 117 years ago, it was part of a powerful new form of entertainment that was developing at an incredible pace and would influence everything we’ve seen since. For that, I’m rating it on its day not ours.
Also, the story – of a mightily bearded old man looking for a beautiful young woman to love and brutally murder – remains freakishly eternal.
9 minutes of your life.
Go on, then. Give it a go.
A year later Méliès did the one with the weird moon…
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