There was no way I wasn’t going to love Catherine Breillat’s latest film, The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie). It covers all my bases: female-centric (check), arty and lusciously imagined (check), and of course, French. I love everything I’ve ever seen from Breillat, and her current offering fits in nicely within her oeuvre of sex-positive feminist provocation (with a particular fascination towards youth and adolescence). Her works maintain a poignant paradox that so many films about young people cannot manage; the young heroine in the Breillat imaginary is naïve, yet wise, curious, yet stubborn, innocent, yet awakened. In the case of The Sleeping Beauty, the awakening is both literal and figurative.
Princess Anastasia (played at age 6 by Carla Besnainou and at 16 by Julia Artamonov) is sentenced to death by an evil witch, yet saved by a trio of fairies who promise that the young royal will merely be asleep for a hundred years and awaken later as a teenager. The majority of the film deals with Anastasia’s adventures in her dream state, and in typical Breillat fashion, every moment seems suffused with symbolism and gender rebellion. When Anastasia awakens to a very different world (and body) than the one she went to sleep in, her journey into woman-hood continues to be complex and challenging.
Breillat’s mediation on a young woman’s coming of age bemoans the limitations and pitfalls of encultured femininity (You can’t climb trees! You can’t be a knight! Romantic love is tricky!), while simultaneously allowing space for the possibility to cast off gender norms and discover the power of one’s own agency. Though unflinchingly direct in their depictions of sexuality and aggression, Breillat’s films are vital precisely because they manage to be provocative in a shock-heavy age that sorely needs true provocation.