Returning to Bluebeard’s castle: Anna Biller on feminism and fairy tales

The director and author explains why it’s still difficult to get female-led films made
November 1, 2023

And the next film by Anna Biller—the director of The Love Witch, one of the best films of 2017—is… well, it’s not actually a film. It’s a book. A riff on the dark fairy tale of Bluebeard, a man whose matrimonial history is a series of corpses; women left dead at his hands.

That said, Biller did intend for her Bluebeard’s Castle to be a movie. She wrote a screenplay, but then the pandemic happened, and production studios either closed down or backed away. Besides, Biller tells me over a clear line from Los Angeles, her screenplay was “all about the woman’s interior life”. And, in Hollywood, that’s simply “less viable”. So Bluebeard’s Castle, the novel, it is. It was published this October. Not that Biller regards this as a consolation prize. 

Biller grew up in LA, the child of an art professor father and a Japanese-American fashion designer mother—it’s possible to see strands of both of their professions in her work. Her “two loves” were “classic movies and books”. Writing a novel has always been a lifetime ambition, and she seems to have found the process freeing. “I started reading a lot more contemporary fiction written by women… and they create such really layered female characters. We don’t have that so much in movies.”

Women authors have, of course, tackled Bluebeard before—most notably Angela Carter in her story collection The Bloody Chamber. What Carter brought to this horrifying fairy tale was naturalism. What Biller brings is—to a point—romanticism. She cites “classic women’s pictures” such as Gaslight (1944) and Rebecca (1940), as well as the “female gothic” literature of the Brontës, and both are clearly imprinted on Bluebeard’s Castle. This version of the story is set in a misty England—Biller confesses to being “a complete Anglophile”—and features a lot of drapery, lipstick and diaphanous clothing.

But there’s naturalism here, too. Biller’s protagonist, Judith, the latest wife of this particular Bluebeard, is no mere cipher or metaphor—she’s a person, with desires, goals and flaws. “She’s sort of an amalgamation of myself and other women I know,” explains Biller.

This difference between the surface trappings in Biller’s work and the serious under-currents is a tricky—though very rewarding—thing to unpick. Early in our conversation, she corrects me when I fail to see through the former to the latter, and blithely compare her cinematic style to Russ Meyer’s scurrilous Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970). “The colors, set design and nudity are the only things that are similar. Unlike Meyer, I’m not looking at a sexy actress in a movie as a woman I want to possess. I’m looking at her as someone that’s like a sister or friend. I’m quoting things from the past—mainly classic women’s pictures—but where the interest lies is where I depart from them.”

In other words: the style might sometimes be (more or less) reminiscent of (more or less) trashy works from the past—because Biller deals in colour and glamour and sex—but her purpose, the actual substance, is very different. 

Where will that purpose take her next? To England, as it happens, for a medieval adaptation of the old Japanese ghost tale Yotsuya Kaidan. There is no pandemic, this time, to get in the way of the production. Nor are there other, less understandable, impediments. “It’s an easier movie to finance because the main character is actually a man,” says Biller. “There’s a man and a woman, and his part is slightly bigger, so already that’s viable.”

At which moment, just fleetingly, I thought I could hear Bluebeard standing over my shoulder, laughing.