Béla Balázs, the pioneering Hungarian film theorist, met the arrival of synchronized sound with a fair amount of skepticism. Heard dialogue, he argued, would halt the artistic progress of the image. They were on entirely separate paths. He perhaps didn’t see the irony in the fact he was also a librettist, having collaborated with Béla Bartók on Bluebeard’s Castle. Opera had spent the preceding fifty years undergoing an enormously productive transformation. By the time Bluebeard’s Castle premiered in Budapest in 1918, composers and librettists the world over had achieved an unprecedented dramatic entanglement of word and music.
In Balázs’s defense, he did think that cinema would inevitably arrive at the same synthesis. With artistic and technological innovation, filmmakers would eventually find a way to “productive sound.” What he did not predict was that sonic innovation would accompany a film as directly inspired by his own work as Gastón Solnicki’s Kékszakállú, an extremely loose adaptation of his operatic masterpiece.
Kékszakállú has very little to do with either the original fairy tale or Balázs’s adaptation. There are no brides, nor dukes, nor skeletons in closets. Rather, Solnicki features an array of nameless, middle-class young women, each navigating the social and economic landscape of contemporary Argentina and Uruguay. They visit swimming pools, take university classes, play at working tedious manufacturing jobs and, in one scene, cook an octopus.
There is very little dialogue in the script, something that might have pleased Balázs. There are very few close-ups, which may not have. The most striking formal element is the opera itself, nearly the only music in the film. Solnicki makes much use of a London Symphony Orchestra recording, conducted by István Kertész and sung by Christa Ludwig and Walter Berry. The chosen excerpts do not directly intervene in the lives of the characters; no one is seen hearing the music, for example. Yet despite the apparent lack of synchronization, the operatic excerpts fight for control of the experience.
The most obvious clash is between Bartók’s mercurial, tonally elastic style and Solnicki’s frequent shots of rigid, imposing buildings. Enormous apartment complexes and factories, most of them white, sit with geometric authority in the center of the frame. There is a colossal diving platform and a parking lot punctuated by the giant pillars of a forgotten structure. The malevolent music threatens to dent these architectural titans, smashing them into jagged, expressionist backdrops.
This atmosphere softens as it follows the women into the factories. The processing of Styrofoam, from towers of material down to little cups, is remarkably soothing. One shot in particular, in which cups are sucked between air tubes, is a mesmerizing near-abstraction in primary colors. Throughout, Solnicki skillfully uses color as a tool for defining space. It is worth noting that Balázs and Bartók share this tactic, assigning each of Bluebeard’s seven rooms a dominant color.
Neither the cruel severity of the architecture nor the lull of industry enlivens the cast, however. Dialogue is often monotonous. Characters are constantly planning their meals. Sometimes they discuss their college majors, or what to wear to the opera. There is no room for impulse, as one woman finds out when caught invading her father’s room. He reprimands her for eating cereal in bed and demands that she go out and get a job.
So she goes to the Styrofoam plant. She climbs up to the roof after work to stare into a titanic exhaust fan. Later she wanders into a university, without any particular academic mission. She asks her colleagues about their programs, but nothing piques her interest. Soon she finds herself in a large classroom, observing an industrial design seminar from afar. The soundtrack booms with another urgent message from Bartók.
The music underlines the futility of her situation. Solnicki excerpts moments of powerful, inquisitive choice by Balázs’s heroine, forever asking Bluebeard to turn over the next key. Her decisions lead her closer to her demise, but at least she’s not making Styrofoam cups and agonizing about the exchange rate to Uruguayan pesos. Hers is a quest to unearth the deeper parts of her soul.
And so, while Solnicki’s errant protagonist can’t exactly be expected to hear or understand the Hungarian music drama that envelops her, she nevertheless demonstrates its influence. The music becomes more frequent in the second half, following her first to the theater and then on vacation. This is the “productive sound” that Balázs was hoping for—asynchronous music that nonetheless expands the narrative space of the film, driving at least one of its characters toward an unknown conclusion.
When she finally grabs a suitcase and abandons the pristine modernism of a vacation home on the Uruguayan Riviera, Bartók begins his irrevocable return. She is followed down the road by the opera’s final scene, the chilling discovery of the wives. As Bluebeard rhapsodizes about his victims, comparing them to beautiful daisies, Solnicki’s nameless woman drives toward an unknown ferry.
There’s a hush as the boat begins to cross the water, but by the time she comes into view Solnicki has skipped ahead to Bartók’s last bars. “Szép vagy, szép vagy / szászor szép vagy,” Bluebeard sings. “You’re lovely, lovely / lovelier than lovely.” He closes with “És mindég is éjjel lesz már”—“And now it will always be nighttime.”
The skeletons are, of course, a metaphor. The castle is the depth of the mind, especially resonant in the Freudian furor of turn-of-the-century Budapest, as it was in Vienna. In a sense, this conclusion is the final psychological frontier for Judit, the bride, who is not so much the opera’s heroine as its dramatic thrust. She is the inexorable force that unwinds her husband, who is both setting and protagonist.
In Kékszakállú, however, there is no allegorical duke. Solnicki may fake out the audience with an early glimpse of a secretive boyfriend, a Bluebeard with abs, but quickly leaves him behind. His eventual protagonist explores the world, rather than a single building or lover. Its darkness welcomes her. The music is never more in agreement with the images than in the final sequence. The ferry floats boldly through the blackness of night sky and dark water, right at the camera. Its lone passenger stares defiantly into an unknown future, a cinematic abyss beyond Balázs’s dreams.
Kékszakállú had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival.
DANIEL WALBER is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. He holds a MA in cinema studies from New York University. His writing on film and opera has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, Dok.Revue and Indiewire.