Home Video Hovel- The Sleeping Beauty
Given how much fairy tales appeal to young girls, the messages they hold for them are often dubious at best. Rapunzel is saved because of her personal grooming habits. Beauty and the Beast teaches girls to judge men by their character and not their appearance but not to expect those men to reply in kind. And one of the worst offenders is Sleeping Beauty, in which a young woman, upon reaching adulthood, does absolutely nothing with her life until a prince comes for her.
Catherine Breillat (Fat Girl, 36 fillette) is out to change these things with her trilogy of fairy tale adaptations, the second of which is the aforementioned Sleeping Beauty and is newly available on DVD. The first was 2009’s Blue Beard and her retelling of Beauty and the Beast is to be the next. Sort of like Tori Amos’ Strange Little Girls album (but much better), these films take familiar cultural mainstays and approach them from a specifically female point of view.
I haven’t always been a fan of Breillat’s previous work. At times, it has seemed to me that she was blaming women for the vulnerable position in which our patriarchal society puts them, occasionally even appearing to sympathize more with the controlling, predatory males in her films. The Sleeping Beauty bears none of those trademarks, though, and is my favorite work from Breillat so far.
The plot starts out recognizably. An old witch curses a newborn princess, named Anastasia, to prick herself on a spindle and die. Younger fairies come along and alter the curse so that she will sleep for 100 years instead of perishing. From there, it begins to differ, though. The young Anastasia is headstrong and yearns to be a boy, to live life with the independence of a male. At the age of six, as the curse foretold, she pricks her hand and falls into a deep sleep. This happens fairly early on and the majority of the rest of the story concerns her dream life. The film resemble a road movie in its episodic nature as Anastasia encounters various boys and girls her age and her relationships to them change as she progresses over the 100 years from six years old to sixteen.
What sticks out here, and fittingly for a period fantasy story, is the beautiful cinematography and set design. Director of photography Denis Lenoir doesn’t just capture Anastasia’s world in a way that’s nice to look at but he presents to us a slightly unrealistic and yet wholly believable universe, washing out the colors in a way that suggests a sleepy haze but that also makes everything the slightest bit mundane and thus more tangible. François-Renaud Lebarthe’s production design continues on that same edict, giving us gorgeously appointed rooms and manors but keeping things just plain enough for us to believe that actual people live there. The combination of Lenoir’s and Lebarthe’s work results in a place you feel you would be happy to spend 100 years.
For all intents and purposes, the entirety of the film rests on the shoulders of the two actors who play Anastasia, Carla Besnaïnou for age six and Julia Artamonov for sixteen (though Luna Charpentier and Rhizlaine El Cohen are also remarkable as Anastasia’s best friend at both ages). Fortunately these two – and particularly Besnaïnou, who has far more screen time – are more than up to the task. Even if we weren’t blessed with the sumptuous visual feast in which they exist, we could watch these marvelous performers hold our attention with only the slightest changes of expression. The casting elevates this film.
Extraordinary performances are called for because of the nature of the dialog. In some ways, it could be said that this film is exactly what Americans who avoid foreign films fear. It is to an extent the stereotype one sees parodied. Throughout the dream sequence that makes up almost the entire running time, the screenplay doesn’t even attempt to pretend that its characters aren’t speaking in metaphor. This conversation about the nature of flowers and trees; these repeated warnings to not be noticed; they clearly mean something in a literal sense. But the heft of the ideas explored and the precision of Breillat’s take on female adolescence give the words and the narrative momentum. Add to that the talent of the people saying them and what sounds tedious in description becomes fascinating and compelling.
As I have described the film, it likely sounds entirely cerebral. Somehow it is that and it is entirely emotional as well. Perhaps it’s because there seems to be so much of Breillat in the work. Humming alongside this heavily intellectualized and abstracted take on the conventional coming of age tale is the heart and the experience of a woman who clearly remembers what it was like to have come of age. It’s both a thing of import and a thing of beauty.