Director: Michael Powell
Screenplay: Béla Balázs
Based on the opera by: Béla Bartók
Producers: Norman Foster
Starring: Norman Foster, Ana Raquel Satre
BBFC Certification: PG
Duration: 60 mins
Dear God, was I not the target audience for this?!!
That may seem like a very glib way to begin a review. Still, it’s important to make the distinction between a bad film and a film that is simply not for a particular viewer. You could say that the latter is always the case, that personal opinion is subjective and therefore to call anything a bad film is presumptuous and arrogant. But opinion is what makes film appreciation interesting and if we’re too mealy-mouthed about it then we get nowhere in discussion and debate. It’s perfectly valid to think something is a bad film and so long as you respect the rights of others to disagree, there’s no reason you should drape your condemnation in apologia. I think Bohemian Rhapsody is a bad film. Many people disagree. That doesn’t mean either side is wrong, although I concede that Bohemian Rhapsody did win the Oscar for Best Film Coasting by on a Reminder of How Good Live Aid Was, so it must’ve had something.
Again, glib, and I am sorry for that, but my ramblings are trying to reach a conclusion of sorts. I’m trying to make a distinction between thinking something is a bad film and thinking something just isn’t for you. I’ve just finished a rewatch of all of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s collaborations. Among them are some of the greatest films ever made: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, the underrated Gone to Earth. But also among them are a handful of filmed operas and, much as their visuals can be sumptuous, my personal distaste for opera makes them only tolerable to a certain level. I can see that The Tales of Hoffmann is a remarkable film and I even get some enjoyment from its visuals alone, but when the musical accompaniment which is equally important in telling the story feels like a sharpened icicle in the ear, I can only recommend the film to a certain degree or, more germanely, to a certain viewership.
Let’s cut to the chase here: I couldn’t stand Bluebeard’s Castle. The hour long film was made for West German TV, in the aftermath of the hyperbolic critical denunciation of Peeping Tom which made it nearly impossible for Powell to find work in his own country. Powell was brought in as director by his old friend Hein Heckroth, the talented art director who was a key collaborator on Powell and Pressburger films like The Red Shoes, Gone to Earth and The Tales of Hoffmann. Heckroth’s stunning work is immediately apparent in Bluebeard’s Castle, with abstract sets that are instantly evocative of a troubled psychological state. The film looks fantastic in this restoration, sparkling like a newly-polished gem. But against those jaw-dropping backdrops, Béla Balázs’ adaptation of Béla Bartók’s opera works its own special magic by making a one hour runtime seem like double that. Bartók’s original work was apparently seen as a challenging piece to stage because there was so little action. Balázs retains that characteristic, presenting a seemingly endless back and forth between Bluebeard and his fourth wife Judit, who repeatedly asks him for keys to open up his vast castle to her and reveal all his secrets. I’m guessing such repetition is not uncommon in opera but the amount of times we return to the request for keys starts to become comic, even though my mouth made no upwards inclination throughout this painful experience. Appreciation of the music probably makes more sense of this repetition as a sort of refrain but I’m so averse to opera that I just couldn’t pick out anything to cling to amidst the shrill warbling.
I’ve come down pretty hard on Bluebeard’s Castle, with the one star I’ve awarded it being entirely for production design, but I must end by returning to my original point (hopefully more succinctly this time). If you have a love of opera or even a potential but thus far unexplored inclination towards discovering one, give Bluebeard’s Castle a try. There are those who absolutely love this film and I’m sure there is much to love here for the right audience. That’s why it’s important to end by reiterating that I don’t think Bluebeard’s Castle is a bad film. In this case, I just don’t consider myself qualified to make that call.
Bluebeard’s Castle is released on Blu-ray by the BFI on 27 November 2023, iTunes and Amazon Prime from 1 December 2023 and on BFI Player Subscription from 4 December 2023. Special features are as follows:
* Newly restored by the BFI National Archive and The Film Foundation in association with The Ashbrittle Film Foundation and presented in High Definition
* Optional audio track of the English translation commissioned by Michael Powell and sung by Norman Foster and Ana Raquel Satre
* Newly recorded interview with film scholar Ian Christie (2023, 21 mins)
* Picture business: Michael Powell at Dartmouth (1980, 16 mins): A short documentary depicting Powell’s time as Artist in Residence at Dartmouth College in 1980
* An image gallery of production designs by Hein Heckroth
* Optional English subtitles
* **FIRST PRESSING ONLY** Fully illustrated booklet featuring writing by Michael Powell, Bertrand Tavernier, Ian Christie and Lillian Crawford.