A little girl who dreams of being a boy. A boy who wishes to be seduced by an Ice Queen. High fantasy and tangled sexuality dovetail in “The Sleeping Beauty,” a fantastical retelling of the popular folklore involving the little girl brought to an eternal slumber. Like the original Brothers Grimm fairytale, this version differs sharply from the public’s greater awareness of the Disney-fied version. But where it takes the familiar-seeming tale differs greatly from the source, as it emerges from the fertile mind of French provacateur Catherine Breillat.
Breillat began her career as an abrasive provocateur, emerging as a major worldwide talent despite spotlighting explicit sexual material sure to make the greybeards red, and the redheads blue. While her latest career detour, with this and her recent “Bluebeard” tackling fantastical ancient myths, suggests a possibly commercial turn towards respectability, that notion ignores the idea of these two pictures, and particularly “The Sleeping Beauty,” plum depths not seen in this genre since Neil Jordan’s soulful “The Company Of Wolves.”
The girl of the title is first seen as a child, petulant little Anastasia refusing to participate in games meant for “silly little girls.” Instead, she re-imagines herself as a powerful troublemaker named Vladimir, refusing makeup and jumping from tree trunks. The turning point for her innocent “adventures” comes when she encounters an ogre, a half-naked older man covered in boils. The man is the first threat of her young life, and Breillat doesn’t downplay either the danger to the girl’s well-being, nor the sexual threat of this beastly representation of virile male consequence. Underlining this is the man’s status as a cave-dweller, which clashes with the girl’s lack of appreciation at her own aristocratic backgrounds. He says she is to blame for his condition, but he could be pointing at his boils and diseases, or his lustful, murderous state. Breillat delicately implies the thorny class conflicts that can create sexual longing and discomfort.
Anastasia runs off to find a destitute family begging for a young daughter. While the single mother is thankful for the daintiness of her new charge, the teen son’s hopes for a new sister are tangled in erotic confusion. While Anastasia declares this passionate young man to be the one to soothe her heart, he instead lusts for another, daydreaming about a distant Ice Queen. He sees her in his dreams, exquisite loveliness, fire-engine lipstick and tough leather, and when she says another kiss will kill him, it doesn’t stop the boy from leaning in.
Sleep beckons, as per the original story, but as she slumbers for 100 years (to wake when she has grown into a woman), her dream quest becomes to return to the arms of her teen male lover. He is the first that she’s known that isn’t a boy, but carries a similar sexual curiosity. It’s queasy when broken down to its essence, naturally, as all sexual longings can be, with this girl’s thorny, libido-driven desire to become a woman. The revelations that steer her to adulthood, and the connections she develops between the dream world and her future life, take her to surprising places that would make Walt Disney blush.
Moreso than “Bluebeard,” “The Sleeping Beauty” takes these very story beats from the original source and expands and experiments with them, finding their roots in class and social conflict, connecting a libidinous attitude with an anti-materialism, the class lines specifically drawn between the lustful (the lower class) and the chaste (employees, royalty). While “Bluebeard” utilized a fascinating, parallel framing device, “The Sleeping Beauty” is an imaginatively immersive experience, fully embracing its fantasy roots and, with a decidedly lower budget, carrying more rich, complex imagination than even Peter Jackson’s Tolkien fantasies, and most assuredly the multiple "Snow White" adaptations coming in the next couple of years. [A]