Catherine Breillat’s cinema is about the tragedies that befall the female body as well as the small spaces for transcending the very stuff that “woman” is made out of: violence. If the female in question is forced to witness the sexual adventures of her sister in silence, as in Fat Girl, she might end up tricking a gay man into listening to the horrors that constitute her, as in Anatomy of Hell, and maybe fucking her while he’s at it. Like a good provocatrice, Breillat has made the unexpected career move of adapting children’s fairy tales to the screen. But judging from The Sleeping Beauty, and the previous Bluebeard, the provocations stop with the choice of the material, as the tone and style of these films are jarringly well-behaved.
In this underwhelming take on the age-old tale of cursed sleep, Breillat turns the princess (Carla Besnaïnou) into a tomboy who loves daggers, hates her breasts, and wants to be called Vladimir, yet spends all of her 100-year-long dream looking for a boy named Peter (Kerian Mayan). Considering the awkwardness that ensues when she finally finds him, or something like him, and her state of jouissance when another woman unbuttons her corset, it could all just have been the sneaky way the manifest content of dreams masquerade the wish-fulfillment that drives them: Was the search for Peter the search for her ideal self? Or an allegory for the recovering of the phallus-gone-missing?
Hard to say, as Breillat’s version of cinematic female agency is more worried about corporeal dynamism than psychic labor. Here a girl breaks free of compulsory lady-ness by beating a shirtless ogre full of boils in a javelin-esque game, wearing a gorgeously furry ushanka to cross snowed-in steppes on a horse, and being unafraid of sleeping with a gypsy girl who’s just itching to cut our princess’s throat. We get that in this version the girl is more Dora the Explorer than Rapunzel, more She-Ra than Ann Darrow, but besides settling for physical activity as antidote for much broader constraints, the shorthand for kinetic heroism that the proto-lesbian child is supposed to represent feels clumsy and underexplored.
This summer’s superb film about the fearlessness of children paying the price for their desire to be (re-)named, Céline Sciamma’s Tomboy, stages a much more compelling intervention in the expectation of damsel-in-distress stasis of female-assigned-at-birth bodies than The Sleeping Beauty, with its politely framed camerawork and televisual mise-en-scène, ever could. In Sciamma’s film, the little girl, Laure, doesn’t even have to time travel, or dream travel, in order to refuse the status of the good-for-nothing-young-and-pretty-thing. All Laure does is walk around her new neighborhood and answer to the simplest of all questions (“What’s your name?”) with a simple lie, or a new truth: “My name is Michaïl,” bitch. While the princess in The Sleeping Beauty repudiates stillness even when her body has been cursed to sleep for a century, her repudiation takes the shape of mere opposition: she rides horses, she throws things, she breaks them—and maybe she would sleep with a girl if the prince wasn’t so good-looking. Her rejection to stay still, however, doesn’t ever change her assigned destination. Her name is Anastasia from one century to the next.