by J.R. Jones
About two weeks from now, on February 19, the Gene Siskel Film Center will present a rare screening of Bluebeard's Castle, one of the twilight works by the great British director Michael Powell. I haven't had a chance to see this adaptation of the Bela Bartok opera, though Jonathan Rosenbaum has reviewed it for the Reader.
As part of the film's run, Powell's widow, Thelma Schoonmaker, has made available a short piece about the movie by French director Bertrand Tavernier (Safe Conduct, Round Midnight, Captain Conan). The Film Center has kindly allowed us to reprint the piece, translated by Michael Henry Wilson:
"I remember seeing this film in a small British Film Institute theater. Michael Powell had set up the screening for me. I was impressed then by its extreme rigor, its strangely luxuriant sobriety, and its great visual beauty. Seeing it again 40 years later is an even stronger experience. The friendly familiarity that I have formed with Powell's films provides more keys, opens other doors through which the imagination can surge.
"Bluebeard's Castle appears suddenly as the missing link that connects The Tales of Hoffman and Peeping Tom. It combines the incredible visual inventiveness, the surrealistic set design of the first one, and the moral rigor, the peremptory, inescapable and yet deeply compassionate tone of the second. Bluebeard is Mark’s twin brother. Both live in a universe of death and desolation, haunted by terrifying memories of their crimes and broken dreams. Flowers and clouds are tinted with blood like the images filmed by Karl Boehm or the magnetic tapes upon which he recorded the screams of his victims as well as his own cries of fear. In this funereal world, victims seem to long for their destiny or to stage it.
"Let us acknowledge right away that Bartok’s opera is one of the masterpieces of the last century—along with Peter Grimes, Billy Budd and The Turn of the Screw by Britten. Magnificent is Bela Balasz’s libretto, with its extraordinary score building up an almost unbearable dramatic tension without any artificial effect. And Powell recaptures this musical power in his direction, in his changes of camera axis, of lighting, of angles, blurring perspectives and vanishing points. Judith finds herself suddenly facing Bluebeard, when in the previous shot he stood at the other end of the dungeon... The characters appear to be walking towards each other but you quickly realize that they are following each other or moving away from each other.
"Helped by the brilliant Hein Heckroth whose experiments are on a par with the work of some of the greatest theater directors—Peter Brook, Strelher, Chéreau—Powell creates on a single set a tortuous, unpredictable maze—a mental labyrinth. You feel as though you are penetrating the characters' emotions just as you penetrated David Niven's mind in A Matter of Life and Death. This labyrinth is perfectly in tune with Bartok’s music. 'The eye listens' as Paul Claudel said magnificently. This was perfectly understood and mastered by Powell.
"What also strikes me in this film where the dark, brown colors of the background and props are pierced by flashes of gold—like in the shot where Judith is suddenly irradiated by a yellow light as if struck by an unexpected and, alas, fleeting ray of sunshine—or violet, or red like the flowers in the water, is its extraordinary melancholy. It is a melancholy that you find in many of Powell and Pressburger's films, from The Small Back Room to Hoffman to Red Shoes to Blimp to Peeping Tom. It emanates from the scenery or from the characters and their relation to the decor. The impressive Norman Foster expresses it marvelously in his acting as well as in his musical phrasing; in the way he holds back his voice. In the last minutes, when the camera moves away from Judith (played with intense inner fire by the beautiful Ana Raquel Satre, who recalls so many of Powell's heroines), one gets the impression that he merges physically into the set, becomes a part of it, and turns to stone.
"Florence Delay, in her magnificent books on the Knights of the Round Table, showed that what was called 'the disease of melancholy' in the Middle Ages was always related to the story of an immense, devouring, impossible, broken love. That tragic love is the one haunting the rooms of Bluebeard's Castle."