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Bluebeard’s Castle review – Michael Powell’s amazing serial-killer opera film

The Powell/Pressburger season at London’s BFI Southbank has given us this rediscovered gem from the later works that Michael Powell directed on his own. It is an amazing and expressionist-hallucinatory adaptation of Béla Bartók’s one-act opera Bluebeard’s Castle, with original libretto by film critic and theorist Béla Balázs; it was first transmitted in 1963 on West German television, but mostly unseen since then, due to legal issues with the Bartók estate. Now it has been restored under the supervision of Powell’s widow Thelma Schoonmaker and Martin Scorsese.

Bluebeard’s Castle was originally to be the first part of a double bill directed by Powell; the other half being Bartók’s nightmarish cabaret ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, about a young girl forced by three sinister figures to perform seductive dances at a window to lure men in from the street to their doom. That second part was abandoned, but it’s intriguing to think what Powell would have made of it, and how Bluebeard and Mandarin would have illuminated each other.

So then … Bluebeard’s Castle is a film about a serial killer, made three years after Peeping Tom, Powell’s previous film about a serial killer, and 19 years after A Canterbury Tale from the Powell and Pressburger era in 1944, about serial assaults on women carried out by the “Glue Man”. The eerie sets are designed by the veteran Hein Heckroth, a key Powell and Pressburger collaborator who also worked with Hitchcock; the American bass-baritone Norman Foster (who is also the credited producer) sings Bluebeard, and Bluebeard’s new bride Judith is blazingly performed by Uruguayan mezzo-soprano Ana Raquel Satre. With her erotic presence and charisma, Satre deserves to be a considered a great Powell female lead, up there with Pamela Brown and Kathleen Byron.

There are just two characters, Bluebeard and Judith, who appear on a strange stage-set which periodically and mysteriously changes, like Judith’s costumes. The seven doors, containing seven secrets, are vast and monolithic, like Stonehenge. Bluebeard’s beard is not blue here, incidentally – the colour which is supposed to have scared young women – but his later lines about the colour of the menacing night sky give us a clue about the colour’s significance.

At Judith’s imperious and yet also terrified insistence, the doors are opened, revealing a torture chamber, a garden, a treasure chest, and other abstract forms; at one stage, Heckroth shows us in the background a set of boneyard shapes, like Vesalian flayed corpses. And finally with the last door, of course, she is to discover the grisly truth. The queasy erotic crescendo that Powell creates from this has an obvious satiric dimension: Bluebeard’s horrendous secret is unveiled as a conjugal act on the wedding night, analogous to and as important as sex. The discovery of the corpses, rendered as stylised masked figures (the faces unnervingly similar to Satre’s) is a parable for the bride’s realisation of the husband’s sexual history, and the realisation that she has become part of that unfinished sexual history. It’s a comment on the male entitlements of marriage and the sacrificial role of the virgin bride, an idea which seems impossibly antique but which was current until about the era of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

Like The Tales of Hoffman, this is a gorgeously weird, artificial film, enclosed in its own delirious world, about love, death and sex and suffused with a deeply disturbing, nihilistic frisson. As Bluebeard says, “Wounds grow cleaner when blood flows through them.”

• Bluebeard’s Castle is out now on Blu-ray, and is released on 1 December on digital platforms. It also screens at BFI Southbank on 8 and 23 December.