French auteur Catherine Breillat is not known for making childrens’ stories, but with “The Sleeping Beauty” (opening Friday at the IFC Center) she turns one on its ear. Known for subversive commentary on feminine representation and sexual desire with films like “Fat Girl,” “Sex is Comedy” and “Anatomy of Hell,” Breillat has turned in recent years to the realm of adaptations. “Sleeping Beauty” follows on the heels of “Bluebeard,” another movie that takes a classic story and plays around with it.
In the new work, which premiered earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival, the director follows the surreal travails of young Princess Anastasia (played at varying ages by Carla Bensainou and Julia Artamonov). Cursed at birth and fated to die at age 16, she’s rescued by a trio of fairies who place her in a deep sleep for 100 years, during which she dreams of a magical land where she comes of age. Breillat spoke to indieWIRE about the challenges of the production and how filmmaking has grown more difficult for her in recent years.
You make several deviations from the original fairy tale. Where did these ideas come from?
In the original fairy tale, you have just a reference to fairies who give her the ability, during the 100 years, to dream adventures, but they don’t say what adventures. So I can imagine what I want. I changed the age where she falls asleep [between the ages of six and 16] because I wanted to tell the story of this little girl who becomes an adult. The first experiences are familiar from the fairy tale, but then she has to fight to survive all these dangers, and also to live them, and have the desire to live them.
Since you deal with such adult themes, what was like directing a young actress?
For a child actress, you have to give clear directions. After one take, it’s finished. You cannot go back. Actually, I treat all my actors like that. But with this little girl, I was a little afraid because the law is that you can’t work with a child more than six hours a day in France. We need many hours to make a movie with a low budget. And when a child is tired, you have just to wait. It was never easy.
How much of the story did you have to explain to her?
I didn’t have to explain anything to her, but I never explain anything to my actors, because for me, the explanation comes afterward–not only after the movie, but after I’ve spoken with the audience. Then I discover what kind of movie I have.
For this audience member, the movie makes the themes of sexual curiosity in your more challenging works like “Anatomy of Hell” accessible to a potentially wider crowd, partly because the framework for the story is already familiar to people.
I tried to expose a simple story that everybody knows and do it with my own point of view. It’s like a painter who presents his own perspective of an image. For “Bluebeard,” which was my first adaptation, I asked myself why I had to do this movie. When I found the answer, it became not the story of the novel, but my own.
Did you see Tim Burton’s version of “Alice in Wonderland”?
No, because I was shooting this one when it came out. It’s so different when you make something for many millions of dollars. I’m not complaining. I have some inspiration from “The Wizard of Oz,” actually, because it shows someone’s imagination without many special effects. I also love the naive special effects in silent movies.
Do you plan on adapting more fairy tales?
Yes, I hope to shoot “Beauty and the Beast” when I get back to France. In my version, perhaps she thinks she’s not beautiful.
What’s the status of “Bad Love,” the movie you’ve been talking about making for years with Naomi Campbell?
I hope I can shoot it one day, but I still can’t find the money for it. That’s more of a challenge now, more and more. I see my students wanting to be important directors who make big movies for large audiences. They even think it’s stupid not to make a commercial movie.
Do you try to convince them otherwise?
No, because I think to be an artist is to be alone.
Strand Releasing opens “The Sleeping Beauty” on Friday, followed by an L.A. release at the Sunset Five.