With her latest film, The Sleeping Beauty, Catherine Breillat doesn’t so much deconstruct the sexual-political underpinnings of the fairy tale, or even provide a revisionist retelling of Perrault’s source material as she did with Bluebeard, as assemble a brand new variant altogether, combining elements from other versions drawn from the likes of the Brothers Grimm, and throwing in entire subplots derived from Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen for good measure. Taken as such, it’s a fascinating framework on which Breillat can hang another of her tantalizing and troubling dispatches from the battlefield of adolescent feminine sexuality. Bewitched at birth by her wicked fairy godmother, the infant princess is doomed to die at 16, pricked by a poisoned yew spindle. A trio of fairy women, who arrive late to the nativity owing to a stopover for some skinny-dipping, can mitigate the curse only so much by shifting its parameters: Rather than death, a century-long slumber will descend upon young Anastasia, while she ages from six to 16, a sleep occupied with an active, questing “dream life,” as she searches for Peter (Kerian Mayan), her “childhood love” and ego ideal, thereby equating the dense, symbol-riddled dream with the girl’s turbulent circum-pubertal period.
Something of a tomboy at age six, Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou), who spends most of her free time climbing trees, wants to be called Vladimir. Given the fact that a few lines of dialogue are spoken in Russian, as well as the 100-year timeframe, there’s the suggestion that Princess Anastasia in fact may be Tsarina Anastasia Romanov, daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. Either way, Anastasia’s dream life allows her an escape from the masquerade that is life at court, a milieu rendered literally so in a song-and-dance number the royal daughters perform dressed up like little geishas. Playing skeletal nine-pins with a boil-covered ogre (Dominique Hulin) so she can cross the threshold into her unconscious, Anastasia winds up at another crossing, a railroad way station, where Peter and his mother take her in. When Peter falls under the spell of the Snow Queen (Romane Portail), the once friendly lad turns aggressive and contemptuous, spoiling everyone’s outlook with his embittered boredom, until he runs away with his intended, the engine that kick-starts Anastasia’s quest.
The film’s midsection follows the Andersen fable quite closely. Anastasia travels to the ends of the Earth trying to track Peter down, encountering along the way many a potentially fanciful personage. Although Breillat livens things up with some surreal touches and uncanny tableaux (the mannequin crossing guards, for one), the central portion tends to sag under the weight of its rather routine fidelity, content simply to go through the motions. Until, that is, the 16-year-old Anastasia (now played by Julia Artamonov) awakens in what might pass for the present day, and the film enters vintage Breillat terrain.
Confronted with the varieties of sexual initiation, Anastasia encounters a dual seduction: the brigand girl (Rhizlaine El Cohen) who once saved her (dream) life introduces her to the subtlety of the Sapphic arts, and a Peter lookalike, Johan (David Chausse), turns the act of slowly undoing her dress and unfastening her corset into a teasing parlor game. The blissful and tender pleasures of the one stand in stark contrast to the accusations and betrayals that soon set in as a result of the latter. Shorn of all her fairy-tale trappings, dressed in a modish yet funereal black, down to her stockings, Anastasia enters the “real” world as the result of her pregnancy by Johan. (She plans to call the child Vladimir, of course.) As they lay together at film’s end, Johan asks her that old standby, “You still love me as before?” “As before,” Anastasia responds, that much the worse, if wiser, for wear. “Except now it’s after.”
A solid anamorphic widescreen transfer, especially bright and glittering during the snowbound northern scenes. The stereo track is more than sufficient to carry the dialogue and bits of piano music. Subtitles are burned in and therefore non-removable.
Only a theatrical trailer.
Strand Releasing has issued another enchanting, provocative fairy tale by Catherine Breillat in a barebones DVD package.