Review: Catherine Breillat’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’ is a Strange and Compelling Critique of Fairy Tales
Catherine Breillat’s new film The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie) marks yet another entry in what seems to be a growing set of preoccupations for the feminist auteur: the costume drama and the fairy tale. In her follow-up to 2009’s Bluebeard, The Sleeping Beauty is her second consecutive deconstruction of a Charles Perrault fairytale, and her third past-set movie when taking into account 2007’s The Last Mistress. This is an interesting transition for a filmmaker whose previous work focused frankly and explicitly on contemporary gender politics and the exercise of power through the human body. Breillat’s intellectual obsessions remain largely the same even as her aesthetic and spatiotemporal settings have changed, but Bluebeard and The Last Mistress, while a welcome transition into ostensibly “new” territory, were in this writer’s opinion far from her best work.
It’s difficult to deny a feeling of rejuvenation throughout The Sleeping Beauty – a joyful embrace of carnival ambivalence in both tone and content that looks and feels inspired, a film that explores (in a way unprecedented in her work) the potentially irreverent (and, let’s face it, fun) excesses of the medium while still providing room for Breillat to exercise her signature mode of critique.
Breillat’s critiques are often overwhelmed by an academic coldness that, for me, oscillates in its ability to function within or without the film’s favor, but is an aspect of her films that can be alienating for many audiences. Her “purely” academic work, like 2004’s exceedingly divisive but inimitably confrontational (i.e., I loved it) Anatomy of Hell, replaces “characters” with argumentative positions, working as a particularly visceral audiovisual exercise in theories of phallic power rather than what many would consider to be a “movie” in any prevailing suggestion of the term. On the other end of the spectrum are films like 2002’s Sex is Comedy, which, though possessing similar ruminations on sexuality as a topic, function fully within their fictional narrative universe as in any conventional film. Her very best work – Fat Girl (2001), Romance (1999), the criminally underrated Brief Crossing (2001) – somehow operate as both polemics and stories whose disturbing affect succeeds through events depicted and the ideas that these depictions stand for. The Sleeping Beauty is this type of Breillat film.
The Sleeping Beauty opens with the birth of Princess Anastatsia, and an older witch fighting with three younger witches over her fate. Where the older witch sentences her to death upon her sixth birthday, one of the younger witches protests an alternative sentence: to sleep for a century upon her sixth birthday, where she will be sixteen years old. The young Anastasia (Carla Besnainau), outspoken and fearless, enters her inevitable sleep state with a whimsy about the fantastic adventures that she encounters during that state, including bowling with skulls against a boil-covered cannibal, becoming part of an adoptive family and encountering the Ice Queen, befriending a Gypsy family, riding a deer across an icy tundra, and meeting a great number of colorful characters along the way. Upon her sudden reawakening after her century of slumber, teenage Anastasia (Julia Artomonov) meets her Prince (Paul Vernet), but has trouble navigating the modern world well enough to consummate a love affair with him.
Breillat’s visual style, perhaps applied more appropriately here than in much of her other work, is vibrant, eccentric, and imaginative. The film still carries with it a distanced Brechtian quality, but unlike Bluebeard (which wasn’t as much a deconstruction of fairy tales as it was a brief exercise in adapting one directly in its original bleak spirit), Breillat here toys with the artifice (for instance, until the film’s third act, all costuming is anachronistic and none suggests a specific era). Besnainau as the young Anastasia has the same obstacles of credibility as many child actors, but during her fantastical mental escapades while she lays dormant (and these random and eclectic scenes are where the film really takes off), this one-step-removed quality of her performance works in the film’s favor as she establishes and embodies the film’s strangely well-balanced tone of manic idiosyncrasy and emotional distance.
It’s the film’s third act, which explores Breillat oft-revisited subject of emerging teen sexuality, that The Sleeping Beauty emerges into the director’s familiar critical territory. Anastasia (that is, Artomonov’s older Anastasia), after all, is not only a character who must deal with the shock of a new century, but also with the immediate transition into sexuality from a carefree century of childhood. Not that Breillat endorses the rather romantic notion of childhood innocence enough for this to be a traditional “loss of innocence” narrative, but Anastasia’s sudden emergence into her sexuality is made perfectly allegorical by the disorientation of the time-jump in that she experiences new events, desires, and manifests a new perspective on the world that she hardly understands but so desperately wants to. Inevitably, Anastasia integrates into modern culture, and when she finally does it provides wonderful, intriguing, and abrupt moment, the type of which one would want an expect from a critical engagement with fairy tales by a filmmaker like Breillat.
The Sleeping Beauty is hardly a shocking film when one considers the gamut of Breillat’s envelope-pushing filmography, but as Breillat exhibited in her adaptation of Bluebeard, Perrault’s fairytales hardly need much indulgent tinkering to be troubling. There already exists a wealth of material in fairy tales ready for exploring what they already imply about gender, sexuality, power, desire, justice, etc. The Sleeping Beauty is also far from a totalizing deconstruction of the fairy tale, and until its final few moments is perfectly satisfied with only its own colorful irreverence, but I’m not sure if that’s something these tales need anyway. What Breillat does instead is much more slight and interesting: she’s having fun with the genre and story as her template to toy with, then uses that foundation to engage with human sexuality as a subject, ultimately turning the otherwise tired “loss of innocence’ narrative on its head.
The Upside: An inventive, visually compelling, comically detached take on a familiar fairy tale that sneaks in some interesting critique without sacrificing its strange storytelling value; one hell of an effective abrupt ending.
The Downside: At 82 minutes, it not only leaves one wanting more but also slightly unfulfilled, as more territory could have been explored.
On the Side: This is not to be confused with Julia Leigh’s Australian film Sleeping Beauty, which had its debut at Cannes this year and will be released at some point by Sundance Selects.
The Sleeping Beauty opens this weekend in limited release. You can check out the trailer below.