By Ezra Stead
The Sleeping Beauty, France, 2010
Written and Directed by Catherine Breillat
Based on the Story “Sleeping Beauty” by Charles Perrault
If ever there was a movie I didn’t get, it is Catherine Breillat’s latest, a bizarre, meandering adaptation of the classic Charles Perrault fairy tale, “Sleeping Beauty.” Perhaps it is because I have only seen one of Breillat’s previous films, the almost universally reviled but, in my opinion, underrated and fascinating Anatomy of Hell (2004), and I am therefore not entirely familiar with her sensibility, but I just couldn’t get into this one. Though it is pretty and has a distinct air of artistry about it, I found Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty to be tedious, and somehow both opaque and obvious at the same time. Of course, it didn’t help that I was constantly reminded of similar but better films by the likes of Terry Gilliam and David Lynch, not to mention Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and especially Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992). Though they share themes such as the transcendence of time and gender, one distinct advantage Potter’s film has over Breillat’s is the stellar, engaging central performance by the great Tilda Swinton, of which none of the actors in Beauty seem capable of approaching.
The film begins in roughly the same way as the familiar fairy tale, with the birth of a princess being greeted by a curse from an evil witch, whereby the princess is doomed to prick her finger on a spindle when she reaches the age of sixteen, and then subsequently die. Sort of a preposterous fatal injury, but of course princesses are notoriously delicate. Luckily for young Anastasia (Carla Besnainou), three good witches intervene, causing the curse to be lessened to a mere hundred years’ sleep, after which she will awaken at the age of sixteen, presumably quite refreshed, but with everyone she knows and loves dead and gone. In Breillat’s version, one of the good witches also bumps the curse up to a time when Anastasia will be only six, so that she may skip the pains of childhood and puberty, and the third grants her the ability to dream while she is asleep.
What follows is that dream, in which little Anastasia wanders through a simultaneously modern and antiquated French landscape (there are castles, carriages and costumes that suggest medieval times, but at one point graffiti advertising the New Wave band Joy Division is clearly visible), meeting various strange characters who may represent some metaphorical point Breillat is striving to make with the film, but who are mostly just a dreary, pointless bunch of weirdos: a dwarf here, a boil-covered giant there, none of which seems to add up to much. Prior to her extended dream state, young Anastasia wishes that she were born a boy, as well as reading aloud a dictionary definition of “hermaphrodite,” both of which serve as rather obvious indicators of the film’s preoccupation with gender roles, though it is never quite clear why the fairy tale Breillat has chosen as her conceit serves to illuminate these issues.
Along the way, young Anastasia falls in love with a somewhat older boy named Peter (Kerian Mayan), who is subsequently led astray by the Snow Queen (Romane Portail) in an odd divergence from one fairy tale’s world into another, that of Hans Christian Andersen. In fact, a large portion of Anastasia’s dream from this point on follows Andersen’s “Snow Queen” tale, including her friendship with a young robber girl (Luna Charpentier) she meets along the way, and who endeavors to help her in her quest to find the wayward Peter. Eventually, of course, the sixteen-year-old Anastasia (now played by Julia Artamanov) wakes form her slumber, though not with the familiar kiss from her beloved; instead, she actually sleeps for the full hundred years and awakens to find Peter gone, replaced by his great-grandson Johan (David Chausse), a dead ringer for Peter himself. Somehow, she also encounters an adult version of the robber girl (now played by Rhizlaine El Cohen), who would not only be dead by now but presumably never existed in the first place, begging the question of whether the dream has ended at all.
Personally, by the end of the film, I was too bored to care about further interpreting its ambiguities, having slogged my way through a seemingly much longer 80+ minutes of narrative dead ends and almost uniformly wooden, uninteresting acting. Perhaps there are riches to be discovered here by the right viewer, but I am reminded of my perennial defense of artsy, difficult films that I love: “One person’s pretentious is another person’s brilliant.” In this particular case, I am sorry to report that I am the former person. While I think Breillat is an interesting filmmaker and I have yet to experience what I am assured are her best works (namely 1999’s Romance and 2001’s Fat Girl), I found this one too frustrating and snail-paced to bear. In case you’re wondering, the subtitle for this review is, of course, a reference to the great Chappelle’s Show and is not meant to suggest that any of the material in this film is too extreme for children (which Anatomy of Hell definitely is); there is some nudity and sex, but it is tasteful and not particularly disturbing, and the one act of onscreen violence is relatively tame as well. However, I would be surprised if children wouldn’t become extremely bored and fidgety watching it; I certainly did, and I’m a twenty-seven-year-old pretentious art-film buff.
Ezra Stead is the Head Editor for MoviesIDidn’tGet.com. Ezra is also a screenwriter, actor, filmmaker, rapper and poet who has been previously published in print and online, as well as writing, directing and acting in numerous short films and two features. A Minneapolis native, Ezra currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.
For more information, please contact EzraStead@MoviesIDidntGet.com.