Catherine Breillat is fearless, and at this point in her career that’s almost taken for granted. Provocateur is the word that seems to come up most, as if critics can’t even find a more English word to depict her unique and challenging portrayals of sexuality and female independence. “Anatomy of Hell” pushed the envelope farther than almost any film of recent memory, while “Sex Is Comedy” and “The Last Mistress” are no less frank in their treatment of sexual politics. That’s why there seems to be a bit of confusion regarding her recent plunge into the world of fairy tales, as if making “The Sleeping Beauty” can be seen as a jump out of her incendiary milieu and into a more “family friendly” style. Yet that could not be further from the truth.
This new film, alongside 2009’s “Blue Beard,” may very well be her most enigmatic and subversive work in years. We may see fairy tales as harmless, florid children’s stories with little distasteful content and always a happy ending, colored by the Walt Disney interpretations we all know so well. Yet Charles Perrault hardly had joyfully singing squirrels in mind when he wrote down his original interpretation of this old story, and Breillat does a wonderful job hearkening back to the ambivalence of early fairy tales. She addresses their fluidity, toying with the sexual boundary between child and adult, the temporal split between past and present, and the fine line separating dreams and reality. More subtle than “Anatomy of Hell” or “Sex Is Comedy,” the director doesn’t break boundaries with her film but rather removes them before even raising the camera.
Of course, to accomplish that Breillat needs to take some liberties with the story. Not that anyone could blame her; every major incarnation of the tale is drastically different, including Disney’s. Her single biggest alteration is the invention of a dream world for the girl (here named Anastasia), which not only gives the character unprecedented personal agency but also opens up an infinite number of possibilities for the film as a whole. Anastasia, played by talented child actor Carla Besnaïnou, wanders through a world of magic castles, gypsies and phantom trains. Breillat has effectively filtered out the influence of adults, casting dwarfs in the few adult roles and giving Anastasia plenty of other stoic children to interact with. This is a space free from external influences, in which the director can manipulate the ambiguities of adolescence uninterrupted.
Yet one cannot help but shake the notion that these kids are wise beyond their years. Peter, who Anastasia encounters shortly after falling into her slumber, is obsessed with the legendary Snow Queen, who presumably will take his innocence. When he finally rides off in her magical carriage, surrounded by the swirling winter air, he offers himself to her. Her chill is dangerous and one more kiss will kill him, but his adolescent desire trumps even the greatest peril. Love is cold, and growing up is a bitter journey but Breillat’s young characters push on into the snow; as Anastasia inches at last closer to the waking world, she finds herself in the frozen wilderness on a lone reindeer foal.
When she emerges, the intimacy is markedly the same as it was in the dream; the only change is a more explicit sexuality. Anastasia’s gypsy friend has grown up, and their relaxed and deeply personal relationship is not changed but rather simply enriched by the introduction of shared sexual experience. When Johan arrives, the older stand-in for Peter, and wakes our beauty from her slumber there is an awkwardness befitting the situation but also frankness in their sexuality that is entirely evocative of the mood of the dream. There is a naturalness to the new loves of these characters, as if they are not only connected to each other but to an unspoken eternity of budding romantic experience.
And that eternity is a key element of this creatively fluid work. Time in “The Sleeping Beauty” has no boundaries, allowing the various sections of the film to sit in dialogue with one another. We open in a chateau presumably around the turn of the century, but the odd dress of the characters and the ethereal quality of the fairies seem to exist outside of time. The very fabric of the narrative bends the rules of temporality, with Anastasia falling asleep at age six and waking up a century later having aged only ten years. Even the aesthetics themselves reference this odd conundrum, and when the little Anastasia falls asleep she is in a room surrounded by alarm clocks.
Breillat also completely throws out the concrete differences between reality and fantasy. Even in the Disney version of the story there is a pretty clear distinction between Aurora’s sleep and the waking world, helped out by the lack of a complex dream life for the princess. Here, on the other hand, Anastasia meets people in her dream world that turn out to be present in her waking life a century later. There’s a strange and tacit continuity that ties each section together, despite the clear breaks one might expect between consciousness and the princess’s deep sleep.
Breillat has now reached a point in her career when instead of breaking boundaries, as she did with “Anatomy of Hell,” she is simply creating worlds in which those rules and limitations do not exist. “Blue Beard,” “The Sleeping Beauty,” and perhaps soon “Beauty and the Beast” take the Renaissance fantasies of Perrault and bend the already mystical world of the fairytale into something completely new and entirely unencumbered. This provocateur has moved away from the “New French Extreme” to become the master of her own magical kingdom.
“The Sleeping Beauty” opens today in limited release.
Recommended if you like: “Blue Beard”; “La jetée”; “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”