REVIEW: With The Sleeping Beauty, Catherine Breillat Makes a Lush Fairy Tale for Adults

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Catherine Breillat's movies are so bold and brash in their views of women's sexuality that no one could accuse her of being subtle. (Tampon teabag, anyone?) But Breillat's latest, The Sleeping Beauty, originally made for French television, is so visually and stylistically delicate that watching it, you can almost forget how forthright, in characteristic Breillat style, it is. I gasped at some of its images, like that of a young princess, dressed in a pink coat trimmed with white fur, crossing the snowy landscape of Lapland on the back of a doe, the Northern Lights shimmering in the vast sky behind her. Personally, I don't remember the journey from girlhood to womanhood as being all that pretty (or, luckily, all that perilous), but I'll take it when I see it.

The Sleeping Beauty is based, somewhat, on the Charles Perrault fairy tale, though it's also dappled lavishly with anachronistic brushstrokes, and laced with more than a few thoroughly modern jokes. (The movie doesn't have the determined grimness of Breillat's last fairy-tale entry, the 2009 Bluebeard, although that one, of course, stems from much grislier source material.) Breillat's reading of Perrault may seem loaded with symbolism, but in reality, it sweeps all of its sexual politics right out front. An old crone who, in her youth, used to lead men into battle is introduced thus: "But now she's old -- she's useless." The little princess at the heart of the story -- her name is Anastasia, and she's played, in her 6-year-old incarnation, by a sprightly yet solemn French actress named Carla Besnaïnou -- cries when her adoptive big brother and best friend shows her a queen bee who has grown so fat on royal jelly she can't move; she's a prisoner of her own weight. "I'm afraid!" she frets. "I don't want to be like her!" Children sometimes long for adulthood, but they also feel threatened by it, and in Breillat's world, they have reason to be.

Breillat opens The Sleeping Beauty hewing quite closely to the fairy tale we all know: A young queen's newborn daughter is cursed by an old and wicked yellow-toothed fairy -- the girl will prick her finger on a yew spindle (it could happen to anyone, really) and die at the age of 16. Three younger, flightier fairies show up to ameliorate the oldie's curse: They argue over precisely how to do this, but end up wrangling some sort of deal in which she goes to sleep at age 6 and sleeps for 100 years, but has the ability to live a dream life in between.

That gives Breillat, who also wrote the script, license to explore all manner of girlhood travails, frustrations and joys, in all sorts of settings. In the movie's early scenes, the young princess is living her "real" life -- she's set to go on-stage to perform a ballet with some other little girls, whom she loathes for their silliness. But when she's pricked by the hairstick that's part of her costume, she finds herself in an unnerving otherworld. (Her outfit in this part of the film is equal parts ridiculous and marvelous: Half-kimono, half-tutu, and she's forced to clomp around in her delicate satin toe-shoes, which are great for dancing but not so great for walking.)

Anastasia's adventures bring her to a cave presided over by an old man covered in boils, and then to an idyllic country house, where a kindly woman (Anne-Lise Kedvès) takes her in to live with her and her son, Peter (Kerian Mayan). Peter adores little Anastasia instantly, and she returns his affection a hundredfold. And after he betrays her, he becomes the model man she searches for in her dreams. As a little girl who's crazy for clocks and dictionaries, she feels she's met her soulmate in Peter. She tells the dwarf guard over at the ghost-train station (this is a fairy tale, remember), he's the smartest person she's ever met: "He does fractions and square roots in his head!"

The idea Breillat is pursuing here isn't just ye olde princess fantasy, the one that's been milked like a tired old cow by Disney for years. Women don't just want the biggest, strongest, handsomest cave guy -- they're attuned to the finer qualities of the male species as well. But those desires can cause them plenty of heartache, as the 16-year-old princess Anastasia (now played by a pre-Raphaelite redhead named Julia Artamonov) learns when the present-day version of her prince, Johan (David Chausse), awakens her from her slumber.

Johan is Peter's great-grandson, and the connection between the two young people is strong. The point of their meeting is also the mark at which The Sleeping Beauty loses some of its magic, though it's temporarily revived by the reappearance of the little Gypsy girl, now grown, that the younger Anastasia befriended during her adventures -- the sequence is a marvel of "Just try it, you'll like it" eroticism.

But the older Anastasia just doesn't have the go-for-broke ballsiness of the young one -- she's lost something in the transition to adulthood, even though it all happened in her slumber. That obvious change is probably intentional, but it saps too much of the film's energy.

Still, Breillat manages to give us a lush, quiet spectacle with The Sleeping Beauty. The picture doesn't look as if it cost a lot to make, but Breillat sure uses her ducats wisely. The costumes are colorful if not necessarily costly, and her cinematographer, Denis Lenoir (who also shot Olivier Assayas' stunning Carlos), keeps the lighting soft yet vibrant, so the picture throws off a burnished fairytale glow all the way through. The Sleeping Beauty is hardly Breillat's most complicated film, or her fiercest. (Fat Girl is the only movie that ever made me yell out "Jesus Christ!" in a packed theater.) But it's a lovely, and loving, survey of many of the girlhood-to-adulthood motifs Breillat has been exploring throughout her career. It's awake, alive and ageless at the same time.



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