Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Sleeping Beauty

Catherine Breillat understands very well the appeal and the power of fairy tales and children's stories, their ability to reflect and create dreams and nightmares, to provide ideal images or give shape to primal fears. The Sleeping Beauty is her second film in a row, following Bluebeard, to deal with children's stories and fables, deconstructing these ancient tales and the lingering influence they have on children's ideas about the world, as well as what these stories can teach about growing up, love, sexuality and the differences between boys and girls. One senses that Breillat has found, in these sensual, magical films, the perfect form for expressing her provocative ideas about girlhood and womanhood.

The Sleeping Beauty is, if anything, even richer and stranger than its predecessor, following the little princess Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) into a dream world where she must stay for a hundred years, cursed by a witch to die but instead left in this in-between state by the intervention of three more benevolent witches. When she wakes up, they promise, she'll be 16 instead of 6, having passed through the troubling transition stage from girlhood to womanhood in her sleep. Like Bluebeard, the story is taken from one of Charles Perrault's folk tales, though here Breillat blends it with Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen and renders it as a surrealist dream. Anastasia wanders from one strange scene to another, encountering a train station populated with mannequins, a wicked jailer covered in boils (who, strangely, forces her to bowl with skulls), and a band of pirates led by a little gypsy girl (Luna Charpentier). At one point, Anastasia is taken in by a farmer woman (Anne-Lise Kedvès) and her son Peter (Kérian Mayan), with whom she lives happily until Peter disappears. She spends the rest of her dream life chasing after him; in his absence, he has become her ideal man, her dream man who she'll always be chasing after.

For Breillat, childhood is an idyllic, pre-sexual Eden in which boys and girls can happily interact, and gender identity is fluid. Anastasia is a princess who wants to be a knight, and who reads about hermaphrodites in the dictionary as a bedtime story before going to sleep. When she stays with Peter and his mom, Peter and Anastasia are instantly happy together, rough-housing and playing, sleeping in one bed, curled up with their heads close together. It's the onset of sexual maturity that opens a gulf between them, as Peter enters puberty, symbolized by the sight of the lovely, chilly Snow Queen in a silvery gown like a wedding dress, followed by a snowflake drifting into his eye, changing his way of looking at the world. From that point on, he's cruel to Anastasia, and they now sleep in separate beds like a married couple in an old Hollywood movie, their perfect union and genderless play forever altered by the dawning of sexuality and the realization that childhood is moving towards its end.

The film's style is both magical and direct, with crisp cinematography that makes these glistening fairy tale locales seem quotidian and grounded, even when they're populated by albino princes and princesses who invite Anastasia for a tea party that's more Alice in Wonderland than Perrault. In one stunning sequence, Anastasia rides a reindeer into the arctic wilds to find an old crone who controls the winds, and the snowy landscapes stretch across the screen, the Northern Lights explosively filling the sky, with the princess a fuzzy little smear in her pink coat, lost and alone in this beautiful but deadly land. The film is richly symbolic, loaded with heavy psychosexual meanings encoded in every object, every image. When Peter shows Anastasia a queen bee, folded in his hand, he tells her that it's so weighted down that it can't move, causing Anastasia, a princess who may grow into a queen, to cry out that she doesn't ever want to be like that.

The film is all about the trauma of moving from childhood's dreams and fantasies into the much less fantastic reality of adulthood. The pivotal moment comes when Anastasia wakes up at the age of 16 (now played by Julia Artamonov) into the modern era. Before this, the film had been an anachronistic mash-up of all times and no time at all, with old-fashioned costumes side by side with more modern objects and decorations, giving the surreal dream the timeless quality of a fairy tale. When Anastasia wakes up, she's in the modern world, her dress and corset and princess' demeanor now the anachronisms in a world of cars and TV and boarding schools. And she finds waiting for her, not Peter, but his descendant Johan (David Chausse), who nevertheless bears enough resemblance to her dream man that she's instantly drawn to him.

Breillat cleverly deconstructs and subverts this "happily ever after" ending by daring to ask what comes next after the sleeping princess wakes up from her curse into the arms of the waiting prince. What comes next is disillusionment: he's too eager, she's shy and virginal, reluctant to give up her virtue so quickly to a man she's just met, while he keeps trying to get away with more and more in their playful flirting. Pushed away, he hangs out with another, more accessible girl, dressed in modern clothes, making out with her while an erotic movie plays on the TV. Meanwhile, Anastasia is reunited with the little gypsy bandit girl, now grown up (and played as a woman by Rhizlaine El Cohen), and she has an erotic encounter with her that's far more sensual and satisfying than her hesitant teenage games with Johan. When she finally does go to bed with Johan, it's painful for her — Breillat cuts to them in mid-act, with Anastasia screaming, seemingly not in pleasure — while Johan is confused and hurt to find that she doesn't want him for himself but as an echo of an ideal dream man whose image she'd had in her head since childhood.

Obviously, the fairy tales that kids learn only set them up for various forms of disappointment, creating impossible romantic ideals to which the reality can never live up. After she has sex with Johan, Anastasia finally sheds her white, lacy princess' dress and the corset that had left painful-looking pink stripes across her back, for a more modern black skirt and stockings, cutting her long hair as well. The dream is over, childhood is over, and she's shed the illusion that she's a special princess, accepting that she's just another girl, in just another complex, painful, confusing, up-and-down relationship with just another boy.

In the film's final image, Johan and Anastasia lay in bed together, their heads outside the frame, red claw marks across his bare torso and tears in her black stockings; they're hurting one another, settling into a familiar kind of damaging relationship. He asks her, "Do you love me as before?" "As before," she agrees, before adding, "but this is after." This is their happily ever after, an acceptance that childhood is over, that the dreams of youth were only dreams, that they are not special or unique, not princes and princesses but common lovers, damaged by their expectations about one another and the ways in which they've so quickly disappointed one another. The fairy tale is over, but its impact on the real waking world lingers.


Sam Juliano said...

"The film's style is both magical and direct, with crisp cinematography that makes these glistening fairy tale locales seem quotidian and grounded, even when they're populated by albino princes and princesses who invite Anastasia for a tea party that's more Alice in Wonderland than Perrault."

Completely agree with this rapturous assessment. Brellat's sensibilities are a natural for some of the material she's chosen to film, and this work's sensuality is applied with vigour. The ending is inspired, as as you note, the current of surrealism is perhaps the most vital element, recalling as it does some work from the Czech New Wave. Again, an astonishing and fascinating piece of criticism.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. Sounds like you like this one more than Bluebeard. I think I do too, the surreal aesthetic gives it a bit of an edge over its predecessor, but they're both great. The Czech New Wave is a good reference point here, for sure.

colinr0380 said...

Great pieces on the Breillat films! By the way, did you see that the 'Breillat on DVD' site recently talked about the three music videos that she directed in the mid-2000s? The link is here:

Carson Lund said...

Great post on a very challenging and strange film. I went into The Sleeping Beauty expecting an extension of the kind of poise and restraint that Breillat offered in The Last Mistress, so it threw me a great deal when I saw it. But I think it's a film that really grows in hindsight, after what initially comes across as aimlessness starts to gather coherence and thematic resonance due to the film's final chapter. I hadn't seen Bluebeard beforehand, so I wasn't quite warmed up to Breillat's concepts either, but now it strikes me that all of Anastasia's kitschy diversions have clear psychosexual motivations.

Ed Howard said...

Colin, thanks for the link, I hadn't seen that.

Carson, the final chapter definitely helps it all hold together. And I think you're very right that what might seem, superficially, like just a whole lot of surreal imagery is actually an expression of the heroine's psychosexual journey - the film is fraught with symbols and nothing seems like it's there without a meaning.