Now that serial killer musicals are back in fashion, LACMA’s screening last Fridayof Michael Powell’s rarely seen Bluebeard’s Castle (1964)–with Powell’s widow and longtime Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker in attendance–seems especially appropriate. Made for West German TV in the doldrums of Powell’s post-Peeping Tom (1960) blacklisting, it’s a startlingly expressionist, one-act, one-hour adaptation of Bela Bartok’s sole opera (with lyrics by film theorist Bela Balazs).
The producer/star Norman Foster (who should not be confused with the Hollywood actor/director of the same name, and whose widow recently approved distribution of the film with Powell’s summary subtitles) plays the mythological duke; Bluebeard’s new wife, Judith (Ana Raquel Satre), unveils his sordid past by unlocking a series of rooms that finally reveal the bodies of all his previous wives, whom he murdered. The opera (and the film) cast the story in tragic terms highlighting the inability of romantic commitment to withstand either the darkest corners of the psyche or the irrevocable forces of fate.
Schoonmaker affectionately quipped that the production cost “about twenty-five cents” and involved “a few students and a lot of polystyrene.” But don’t let that fool you–Bluebeard’s Castle is an intense and visually dazzling film that recalls the most experimental moments of Powell’s (and Pressburger’s) The Red Shoes (1948) and The Tales of Hoffman (1951). Bertrand Tavernier (last seen passionately promoting movies in Todd McCarthy’s documentary on Pierre Rissient) and George Romero both count themselves among the film’s ardent fans.
The sets, in fact, were envisioned by Hein Heckroth, the surrealist painter who designed those two previous movies, as well as Powell and Pressburger’s third opera film, Oh… Rosalinda! (1955). While the decor may be of modest construction, it’s highly effective: shadowy, abstract sculptures, vaguely evoking women’s anguished faces and bodies, which suggest not only the walls of the castle but its very spirit of death. Splattered paint and menacing forms adorn layers of transparent fabrics that appear and disappear according to their illumination by vivid theatrical lighting.
Like a garishly-hued The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, the abstract sets are not only striking in two-dimensional, pictorial terms, but also exhibit an immersive, three-dimensional depth by shifting within the film’s space like a hellish phantasmagoria. Each door–resembling a monolithic gravestone–unveils its own degrees of beauty and horror; an armory, a treasury, a garden, even a distant mountain range are suggested through countless layers of complex, sculpted and painted forms, challenging the viewer to penetrate and decipher them like the turbulent emotions swarming within Bluebeard himself. One visual highlight is a pool of tears that Judith leans over, teardrops descending in the foreground painted on a transparent fabric. As she looks at her reflection, a fluid poured into the pool is scattered in jagged, concentric ripples, echoing the general set design before turning blood red. As a matter of fact, blood eventually finds its way behind each and every door Judith enters–and can even be seen in the surrounding clouds.
The opera was recorded for the film in Zagreb (Schoonmaker told us the conductor finished the recording and had to race to conduct a performance of Carmen later that evening) and Powell later shot the film to coincide with the pre-recorded music. (Schoonmaker also claimed Scorsese utilized the same technique for his Goodfellas montage set to Eric Clapton’s “Lela.”)Despite the potential danger of this approach, the camera and editing never seem constrained by it; though the film was obviously carefully planned out, it never feels schematic. In fact, Bluebeard’s Castle is an shining example of how to make a great film out of virtually nothing, a film that reverberates in the consciousness like a haunting death cry, its images and emotions as worthy of scrutiny as the classics of German expressionism.
Incidentally, in surfing the web, I found a fascinating page at the University of Leeds that claims to offer video clips of an academic dialogue surrounding the film, including a lecture and discussion by Powell critic Ian Christie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be working for me–maybe you’ll have better luck.