The second film in her planned trilogy of subverted fairy tales, Catherine Breillat’s latest topples the tyranny of pink and princesses. The Sleeping Beauty, like last year’s Bluebeard, is based on a classic legend from Charles Perrault’s 1697 collection Stories or Fairy Tales From Bygone Eras. But in freely incorporating elements from Hans Christian Andersen’s 1845 tale The Snow Queen and her own provocative thoughts on the prison of childhood and adolescent desire, Breillat reimagines the slumbering heroine as a gender insurrectionist, freeing her from her most retrograde and enduring cultural representation: Disney’s passive damsel.
“A little girl’s life is really boring,” six-year-old Anastasia (confident, not fatally cute Carla Besnaïnou) announces in voiceover, sharing the same lust for adventure that the younger of the two sisters in Bluebeard (the director’s own childhood surrogate) possesses. Despising dresses and any other traditional, femme-y trappings, the tiny tomboy climbs trees and proclaims her new identity: “I’m Sir Vladimir.” Cursed at birth to die young by a warty old hag, aristocratic Anastasia had received a reprieve from three nymphet fairies, who modify the newborn’s fate so that she goes into a century-long deep sleep at age six, not to wake until she turns 16. After she rebels against having to don a fuchsia kimono, a tutu, and elaborate maquillage as part of an all-girls ballet recital, Anastasia’s hand, as preordained, is pierced by a sharp object—the injury that leads to her 100 years of repose.
Her body may be at rest, but her dreams are filled with derring-do. In staging Anastasia’s REM escapades, Breillat proves, as she did in Bluebeard, that an extremely limited budget and modest scale are no impediment to carrying out her ideas. After the headstrong half-pint outwits a boil-covered ogre, she boards a train that takes her to a farmhouse, where she will spend a blissful few months romping around with a barely pubescent boy, Peter (Kerian Mayan), who eventually departs, succumbing to the seductions of the Snow Queen—and the promise of adventures of his own. In her quest to find her beloved “brother” (the two share a bed, resembling not so much devoted siblings as a newly-in-love couple), Anastasia meets dwarves who appear to have jumped out of Las Meninas, young albino regents who treat her to a feast of pastel meringues, and a knife-caressing Roma girl.
In the film’s final third, centered on the 16-year-old Anastasia (Julia Artamonov), Breillat revisits one of the defining themes of her work: the sexual appetite of young women, earlier explored in A Real Young Girl (1976), 36 Fillette (1988), and Fat Girl (2001). As pale as the moon, the teenage Anastasia fits uncomfortably in the modern world. “What species are you?” asks 18-year-old Johan (David Chausse), Peter’s great-grandson, when he fingers her whalebone corset. Far more predisposed to feminine accoutrements than she was as a child (“For beauty, you must suffer”), Anastasia is just as willful as her six-year-old self. “No one dares contradict me!” she shouts at Johan, with whom she has a tempestuous relationship—after she’s bedded by the older incarnation of her Gypsy friend.
Though The Sleeping Beauty ends ambiguously, it remains consistent with the logic that Breillat has laid out: A girl’s childhood and adolescence are often culturally sanctioned confinements. But the prisoners aren’t always victims; the jails can be escaped through the courage to “go alone into the world.” Breillat’s clarity stands out even more when compared with the half-thought-out, post-feminist notions in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, which premiered at Cannes and will be released by IFC Films in October. And her vision will undoubtedly embolden the announced final installment in her fairy-tale trifecta, Beauty and the Beast—a classic 1946 film by Cocteau that’s also been Disneyfied.