Movies are meant to enchant us and Catherine Breillat’s visually stunning The Sleeping Beauty does that and more. Like her recent Bluebeard, this is a thinking woman’s fairy tale, in which Breillat explores the sexual awakening of girls, and the meaning of class and gender, revising the familiar stories while keeping their enrapturing charm.
Her sleeping beauty is Anastasia, cursed at birth by a black-hooded evil fairy, raised in opulence by a mother with a jewel-encrusted headdress. When she is six, three nubile good fairies put her to sleep for a century to escape her fated death.
Even asleep she is no snoozy princess, though. In her dream, which includes a large dose of Alice in Wonderland, she wanders through dungeons and into bright sunlight. The unspecified time keeps shifting as she heads toward today, where she is taken in by a mother who lives in an isolated cottage with her adolescent son, Peter.
Anastasia adores Peter, and when he is lured away by the evil Snow Queen, sets out to find him. Her adventure leads to friendship with a gypsy girl her own age, who swings a threatening knife around, and gives Anastasia a doe to ride to Lapland in search of Peter.
The film is most alluring in this first hour, focusing on the inquisitive, fearless little girl. The fairy-tale colors and scenes are so stunning and the child (Carla Besnainou) so naturally bold, Breillat gets away with some clumsy touches: the young Anastasia is a tomboy who likes to climb trees and read dictionaries, with “hermaphrodite” one of the words she reads out loud.
As always, Breillat (The Last Mistress, Fat Girl) risks tumbling into didacticism at any time, and that time comes when Anastasia awakens as a 16-year old who falls for Peter’s descendent, Johan. The gender-bending themes and symbolism become conspicuous; the gypsy girl even returns, all grown up, and actually calls attention to the phallic importance of that old knife.
But as the grown Anastasia tells Johan, “I was searching for you in my childhood nightmare.” She offers him her story, which tells “the truth about girls” (and the men of their dreams). Until the last half hour, that is exactly what The Sleeping Beauty gracefully portrays.
For a glimpse at the more perfectly realized Bluebeard, and my list of Best Fairy Tales Films for Grownups, click here.
Sleeping Beauty is playing in New York as part of the series Rendez-Vous with French Cinema (full info here), and opens in theaters in July.