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Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2011: Catherine Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty

Breillat’s films tend to examine sex in close quarters, trapping their characters in situations where they’re forced to confront otherwise ignorable realities.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema 2011: The Sleeping Beauty
Photo: Film Society of Lincoln Center

Catherine Breillat’s films tend to examine sex in close quarters, trapping their characters in situations where they’re forced to confront otherwise ignorable realities. The film set of Sex Is Comedy, the bare bedroom of Anatomy of Hell, the cloistered vacation communities of 36 Fillette and Fat Girl, all act as proving grounds for the painful exploration of a specific sexual reckoning. This was taken one step further in last year’s Bluebeard, which not only ensconced its adolescent protagonist in a menacing castle, forced to confront male sexuality via her monstrous, murderous husband, but cast this as a framing lesson for two preadolescent girls.

The Sleeping Beauty both qualifies and clarifies that previous film, expanding upon the director’s usual preoccupations within a dreamily ambiguous storybook world. Doomed to 100 years of sleep after being pricked by a poisoned yew splinter, the intercession of some benevolent fairies allows the six-year-old princess the ability to spend that time awake in dreams, before waking in the distant future at the age of 16. This casts the tumult of adolescence as a kind of confusing magical quest, allowing the transition from a bratty tomboy (she originally wants to be called Vladimir) to a complex, assured adult.

While not attempting the fevered dizziness of David Lynch’s dream worlds, Breillat’s at times feels equally dense, casting cave trolls and ice queens as markers for a picaresque struggle that encompasses themes of loss, growth, and death. Her work has been tinged by a newfound mortality focus following a 2004 stroke, and that fixation seems especially strong here; the sleeping beauty’s 100-year sentence in dreamland is a not only a blessed opportunity to work out adolescent angst, but a reminder of how short her actual life will seem in comparison.

It’s this context that makes the film feel both breezily magical and thematically rigorous. As Bluebeard seemed at times drearily faithful to the skeleton story of its source material, The Sleeping Beauty serves as a reminder of what blank canvases these old stories are. Breillat’s version, while staying relatively true to the structure of Charles Perrault’s original story, acts as a feminist reimagining on the level of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, using the plight of besieged female characters as a crucible for broader issues.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinem runs from March 3—13.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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