Sunday, April 4, 2010


Director Catherine Breillat has made the French folktale of Bluebeard into a film. It's a cautionary tale about marriage to a man with a bad romantic history (in this case, the skeletons in his closets are actually the corpses of his ex-wives mounted on hooks).

I've read a good deal about the more obvious symbolism in the novel--the bloody key that reveals the newest wife's trip to the chamber as a symbol of lost virginity, for example--but I am more interested in takes on the beard itself. A cursory review of the literature holds that it is his "ugly" and "fear-inspiring" beard (rather than the bodycount) that accounted for the sisters' resistance to wed him, despite the fact that he was a wealthy man.

In variations of the tale, Bluebeard is, by turns, the devil, a magician, and the first serial killer to capture the popular imagination of the West. Academics analyzing the text go beyond the usual associations with the beard: Linda Millet, author of The Wife Killer, affords Bluebeard a potent, enduring allure. "Blue Beard retains his charm," she writes, "by being overt articulator of the private fantasy of egomania...he is the subject that takes itself for a god."

I have heard the beard characterized as potent, and, of course, its associations with the devil have been much-discussed, but I've never considered the beard's perceived relationship to ego.

Harvard professor Maria Tatar, author of Secrets Beyond the Door: The Story of Bluebeard and His Wives takes me out to left field, once more, when she determines that the fearsome beard is a symbol of his other-worldly origins.

Does this hold true for all beards? Doubtful. Bluebeard had a few other things going for him--especially the extreme obscurity of his hair color--that kicked him over to the Dark Side. Still, the beard is a trope of evil, and, as a grooming habit embraced by a minority of men in the culture I'm writing from, it remains a mark of "other"ness.

Comprehensive analysis of Bluebeard tale

NYT article regarding the film
Further reading