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Catherine Breillat’s Wandering Beauty

By Alice Gregory
Friday, July 15th, 2011
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Carla Besnainou and Kerian Mayan in “The Sleeping Beauty.”

Catherine Breillat’s kinky retelling of Sleeping Beauty, like her version of Bluebeard from 2009, is art directed with the specificity of a bad LSD trip. A list of visual details almost constitutes a movie summary in itself: Yew trees, Iodine bottles, toggle coats, Joy Division graffiti, torn lace, bee keeping, lank hair, gold teeth, patrician dwarves, lesbian sex.

The plot of The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie) is only tenuously tied to the original Charles Perrault story: A witch does indeed cast a spell on a young princess who falls asleep for 100 years. In this version though, the princess — Anastasia — doesn’t remain asleep under glass, she dreams and wanders during her slumber. And here the curse is not cast out of jealousy; we never do learn the cause of the hex. That detail proves inconsequential, but it’s the first of many emotionally unmotivated plot points.

After ditching a ballet recital in fin-de-siècle France, Anastasia wanders though a dungeon guarded by a bubonic oaf and into a wooded countryside. A poor widow and her adolescent son, Peter, spot Anastasia capering down some train tracks, still in her toe shoes. They invite her in for dinner, and soon enough she’s part of the family. Anastasia’s new mother dresses her in Peter’s outgrown clothes, bathes her in pails, feeds her strawberry jam, and puts her to bed with hot water bottles. Peter vows his eternal protection, and a subtly incestuous intimacy is established between them. One evening, apropos of not much, an Ice Queen seizes Peter’s soul. Overnight, he becomes snappy and despondent — then he vanishes (a belabored metaphor for puberty). The rest of the film follows Anastasia as she searches the world over for Peter, convinced that he’s her Prince Charming. When she finally does wake up a century later, it’s not to Peter’s kiss, but to the fascinated gaze of his great-grandson, Johan. It’s now modern times, and the characters Anastasia met in her ramble have aged according to some inscrutable metaphysical law (Peter is long dead, hence the great-grandson, but another friend appears only ten years older.) Anastasia’s adventures are now retroactively rewritten as elaborate sexual fantasy.

In certain ways, the film shares a sensibility with Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson — our American auteurs of tasteful whimsy. And like some of the films of Coppola and Anderson, Breillat’s should have been edited down, if not to a music video, then to a short film that promotes some new line of scion-designed jewelry. Like a novelist wolfishly devoted to her own descriptive sentences, Breillat could have benefitted from an editor with an unforgiving eye for word count.

This is not to say that The Sleeping Beauty isn’t visually stunning or completely subsuming for the first hour. Carla Besnaïou, the elfin actress who plays young Anastasia, is great: full of moxie, never too fey. The sheer strangeness of the lands she visits is enough to place Breillat in an aesthetic league of her own. There is a golden room full of albino children who eat rainbow meringues for breakfast, a gypsy lair ruled by a sadistic child princess who tames pigeons, an aurora borealis-lit Lapland tundra that Anastasia traverses on doe-back.

The Sleeping Beauty is just so structurally flawed though — and in commonplace ways. It’s too long, there’s little character development, and the intentionally elliptical ending is mostly just confusing. Breillat overcompensates for the deficit of story with a surplus of set design. Sometimes this is enough to dazzle and distract, but it’s hard not to resent the strategy or feel insulted by the assumption that we might not notice it.

The night before Peter disappears — the night before Anastasia’s subsequent real adventures begin — he savagely confronts her: “You just marvel at everything, as if that added up to happiness.” It’s a strangely brutal thing to tell a child, and it doesn’t even make moral sense, but Anastasia is wounded, of course, and it’s what inspires her quixotic journey. Breillat herself could take some advice from the hormone-ravaged Peter though: Marveling at everything, as if that added up to happiness is a sin comparable to decorating everything, as if that added up to narrative.


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  • Rich

    I am glad I came upon this site if for no other reason than to read Alice Gregory’s film reviews. I know nothing about Miss Gregory except that her interpretation and presentation of a film is the best that I have ever read. I think this is going to turn into one of those “I remember her when” situations. I can easily imagine Miss Gregory becoming a very prominent film critic.