Thursday, March 17, 2011

Sleeping Beauty, The (2010, Belle endormie, La)

Catherine Breillat is the most provocative filmmaker alive.  Her work inspires shocks of admiration and disdain.  Fat Girl is the film that cemented Breillat’s reputation as a master.  That film dealt directly with the corruption of young girls facing their sexuality.  The Sleeping Beauty sleeps right through these experiences.  It is an adaptation of the famous fairytale that we know in one form or another: a new-born princess is cursed to prick her finger on a spinning wheel and sleep for a very long time.  In Breillat’s film, she will prick her finger at age 6 and sleep for 100 years.

The film unfolds in three sections, the first showing Anastasia at 6 before the prick.  She is in line with Breillat’s heroines: independent; rebelling against the role society has carved for women but incapable of igniting a revolution.  Instead of wearing pretty dresses, Anastasia wishes to be a boy and prefers climbing trees and skinning knees.  In perhaps a more contemporary scenario, she refuses to take part in a beauty pageant.  These scenes feel the most authentic.  Breillat seems to have a natural gift for period films, nothing excessive, but there is just enough dust on the edges of the frame.  The little girl playing Anastasia, the heir to the Russian throne, is bright and charming, inquisitive and beautiful.  She represents womanhood untouched by the deceit and bodily fluids of the adult world.  Yet her rebellion seals her fate; in refusing to be put on display, she pricks her finger—Breillat’s acceptance that women are fated to follow their pre-determined path.

This takes us into the second phase of the film, Anastasia’s slumber, told in an episodic way much like Alice in Wonderland, where Anastasia encounters one unusual situation after another.  It’s an interesting conceit to delve into Sleeping Beauty’s dreams.  I’ve certainly never considered what those fairytale princesses dream up during their inevitable slumber.  The problem is nothing interesting develops in these scenes.  No tension at all.  In her dreams, Anastasia encounters a young boy named Peter.  They have a very pure relationship until Peter is lured away by the Snow Queen, an oddly colored dominatrix in what is perhaps the film’s most embarrassing image.  Anastasia then searches for her friend and encounters a gypsy girl.  There is a real lack of imagination in these dreams.  Breillat takes neither a surrealist approach nor does anything special.  These scenes happen very matter-of-factly, and if one were paying only mild attention to the film (perhaps dozing off) it would be difficult to follow that Anastasia is now asleep.  Perhaps if Breillat had focused in on her material, given Anastasia some quest to accomplish that involved wonder and corrupted innocence, she could have made this structure work.  It’s a terrific idea after all but it is not exploited.  Still, up to now the film is not a total disaster.

The concluding 20 minutes have Anastasia awaken at 16.  The great-grandson of Peter wanders into her bedroom from out of nowhere and proclaims his love, or at least his lust.  How did he know where to find her or that she exists at all?

The 6 year old Anastasia says to her three kind fairies, ‘It would be disappointing that in 100 years you do not wake me up.’  Is this indeed what happened?  Because Peter and the gypsy girl existed in Anastasia’s dreams, how do they exist in reality?  How too is the gypsy girl so young?  Shouldn’t she be dead at roughly 106 years old?  She certainly would not be beautiful, naked, and in bed with the 16 year old Anastasia.  But in this final part we get only the skeleton of a film.  The most interesting material in the story as told by Breillat seems to be left out.  This girl, who has slept through her period of sexual discovery, finally awakens as a woman, with breasts, capable of seducing men and finding pleasure in the modern world, and all she does is rebel against Peter and frolic in bed for the audience’s titillation.  The finale comes abruptly and unsatisfactorily.  Without giving away the ending, it presents the most interesting plot development in the entire film.  I feel that Breillat’s material really began with that ending and the film should have instead followed a fish out of water princess as she confronts the predicament she and Peter have put her in.  And the concluding passages contain enough pseudo-psycho-sexual babble to offend even the most ardent French film lover.

A problem typical of the entire film is the Carabosse character, the Maleficent of Breillat’s version.  Visually stunning, a sinister, a-sexual being, the very first shot of the film has her holding the infant Princess Anastasia in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other.  As the three kind fairies approach the child, Carabosse tells the carefree girls of her wicked spell.  Why exactly does Carabosse hate this family?  We see nothing of her magical powers, and I think Breillat takes for granted that we the audience will know the story and supply our own motivation.  But this “merciless” opening is noticeably awkward because the tragic news of Anastasia’s inevitable demise didn't resonate with me.  When Catherine Breillat made Anatomy of Hell after 3 particularly explicit films, it felt to me that she had grown so full of herself that she could risk delivering excessively more of what she was used to.  It was not the case; Anatomy of Hell was an artistic disaster made with relatively good intentions and it seems the director is again following the same path.  If for her next film she can deliver another surprising piece like The Last Mistress she can take herself in a whole new direction.

I still respect Catherine Breillat as a great auteur.  Even in The Sleeping Beauty there are the themes that dominate her work.  In fact, this film reminds me most of the director’s debut, A Real Young Girl, a surrealistic and gross gender-specific sexual awakening flick.  Unpleasant as parts of that film were, it was still terrific as a fan to find Breillat, like Hitchcock, rummaging over the same ideas in perpetuity.  The Sleeping Beauty just doesn’t offer anything new.  Bluebeard, her previous film, another fantasy adapted from the pages of Charles Perrault, was a terrific little film that tried to reconcile the fairytale with real young girls in a contemporary setting.  What we were seeing of Bluebeard was in fact not the story being told.  It seems Breillat doesn’t have the imagination (or funds—The Sleeping Beauty was a French television film, perhaps leading to the rough quality of the finished work) to pull off an epic fantasy.  How eager I was to see it though.

Sleeping Beauty, The (2010)
(a.k.a. Belle endormie, La)
Director: Catherine Breillat
Writer: Catherine Breillat (screenplay), Charles Perrault (story)
Stars: Clara Besnainou, Julia Artamonov, and Kerian Mayan
In French and Russian
Runtime: 82 minutes

The Sleeping Beauty is scheduled to be released theatrically in the US this Spring from Strand Releasing.  A DVD release should follow.

IMDB link:

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