It is axiomatic that fairy tales morph with each re-telling. This narrative shape-shifting lets each new version capture new anxieties, reflect new eras; each new author adds his or her own personal stamp. Catherine Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty is no exception. As the director said in a recent interview, “When I made the film I had to ask, ‘Why me?’ I have to become part of the story. I have to be it.” With Sleeping Beauty, Breillat re-imagines the plot by starting from the most seemingly obvious point: the heroine’s dreams. (After all, what else can you do with a character whose main action is sleeping?) Breillat imagines a girl who “wanted to be daring and do things that were dangerous, forbidding, and do them in her own way.” So the passive protagonist of yore becomes an adventurer, whose soul fearlessly roams the universe as her body lies asleep in a silent chamber. Or, as Breillat puts it, this is no “a little Barbie pink dream.” This decision is both brilliantly simple and dazzlingly inspired. Whether the film always holds up to this conception is a matter of debate, but as a guiding construct it is nearly perfect.
So far reviewers have given the film mixed reviews, deriding it as “too fragmented” (Variety) and “tedious, self-indulgent nonsense” (The Guardian) but I happen to be something of a dream fetishist, so I couldn’t help but be enthralled — by the premise at least. Of the many aspects of the original Perrault story that I enjoy — the enchanted castle frozen in time, the thorn bushes (which I always envision as aflame with wild roses) — what speaks to me most of all is, well, the sleep. To sleep, sleep, for a hundred years, endlessly dreaming… this has always captured my imagination. My own dreams are vivid exciting narratives; they’re where I get my story ideas, where I see the most arresting images, where I find things I could never imagine in daylight (unless, of course, I find I have slept through most of the afternoon). Other competitive-level dreamers will recognize this delight; like me, you may also love this meandering aspect to Breillat’s film.
The film begins in a straightforward enough way. Carabosse, the evil fairy, swiftly snips an umbilical cord as baby Anastasia is born. (For some reason Breillat’s Sleeping Beauty happens to be a Russian princess — perhaps a nod to Tchaikovsky.) Carabosse places the child in her mother’s arms, and then begins to muse on the nature of the large wooden birthing bed. The posts on the bed are made of yew, she notes, a hard wood, associated with death, and very good for making spindles out of. In the meantime, three good fairies are cavorting outside, having lost track of time. Perhaps annoyed by this, or perhaps just naturally malevolent, Carabosse decides to lay down a spell, and by the time the three good fairies show up, baby Anastasia has been cursed to die when she hits sixteen.
As per the old narrative, the three good fairies amend the curse, but, in a new twist, the child shall now prick her finger at the age of six and will be sixteen when she awakens a hundred years later. And thus end any other similarities to the original story. Beware, for here there be monsters as you fall off the edge of the narrative ocean.
Anastasia grows up into a tomboyish child who climbs a tree and scrapes her knee, and detests the little ballerina costume her parents put her in — the same costume she is wearing when she pricks her finger. (The costume is a little geisha outfit, the “spindle” a chopstick worn in the hair.) The child embarks on her dream-journey now, which seems to incorporate symbols and images from several other fairy tales — there are elements of the Ugly Duckling, huge swaths of The Snow Queen, and even a touch of Ali Baba and Alice here and there. Dwarves and midgets abound, and Anastasia travels from place to place on a Ghost Train. Throughout the dream she looks for her childhood pal, adoptive brother and dream lover Peter, chasing an ideal from one magic place to another. She ultimately finds her way to an oneiric snowscape in one of the most visually gratifying sequences in the film, beautifully rendered by cinematographer Denis Lenoir, where she asks an old, shaman-like crone for power; the crone replies, “I cannot give you any more power than you already have. You left barefoot and made your way through the universe.”
Throughout the film, as is perhaps inherent to this type of story, there are repeated references to time: the passage of time, the sense of urgency to not let time slip away. Before she pricks her finger, Anastasia sleeps in a bed surrounded by dozens of ticking alarms clocks; the sound of their ticking brings her comfort as she clings to each passing second of her finite life. When she firsts meets Peter he is perfectly sweet and lovely but he later becomes suddenly and inexplicably obstreperous — inexplicably, that is, until his mother announces ominously, “You’ve reached the Awkward Age!” and little Anastasia merrily grabs a dictionary and reads the definition of “puberty” aloud in front of everyone (which, by the way, is exactly the kind of thing with which I would have tortured my older sibling as a smug, clear-skinned prepubescent). There are numerous references to boredom and the wasting of time as analogues of youth; the three good fairies marvel at the fact that all humans know they’re going to die one day and yet they all piss away massive amounts of time anyway. “It’s their favorite hobby!” one of the fairies declares. (And note: if the fairies hadn’t lost track of time in the first place, Anastasia would never have been cursed!) All this may reflect the fears of a woman who has recently had a brush with death and suddenly become away of her own mortality; perhaps some of this anxiety relates to the stroke Breillat suffered in 2004. Sleeping Beauty’s “curse” is not unlike a devastating prognosis.
In fact, though I have found many different symbolic readings of Sleeping Beauty from latent sexuality to women’s agency, I haven’t found any that deal with the tale as an outlet for chronological anxiety. And yet it feel obvious — if you know you only had sixteen years (or six) to live, wouldn’t you be anxious, too? Breillat’s interpretation is one of the few that brings this to bear, and I think it’s a refreshing perspective.
For me the film lost some of its charm soon after Anastasia woke up. Here it reverts back to the more typical sexual awakening version of the tale. I won’t spoil it, in case you’re really unfamiliar with this trope and want to be surprised(!), but suffice it to say that Breillat, being Breillat, goes well beyond that first kiss. She cannot help but take us to its after-effects, and show us the blood and guts of the fairy tale… which for some reason felt shopworn to me. The director’s handling of bodily disillusionment felt far too easy, almost lazy, and was probably the only place I felt dissatisfied with the film. (Other critics, including Caryn James at Indiewire and Miriam Bale at the L Magazine, have agreed on this point.)
Other than the brief prologue, this last act may be the only point of contact with the original tale. Sleeping Beauty will not, in any sense, satisfy any preconceived notions of the source material. It is utterly different and boldly borrows from whatever and whomever it pleases — Breillat readily admits to pilfering from the Snow Queen, and says with relish that Anderson is the “greatest writer of cruel fairy tales.” But this is what makes Breillat so good at adapting them, beyond her proven affinity for themes of adolescent female sexuality: she knows that fairy tales are often narratives of cruelty and pain. There are birth pangs in this story, bookending the innocence of childhood and its dreams, and eventually shattering them.
During the post-film Q&A, an older woman in the audience said, “I really wanted to show this film to my grand-daughter, but then at the end I was not so sure. What to do? What to do!” And Breillat replied sweetly, with her typically sly sense of humor, ‘You wait till the DVD comes out, then you dub a copy, and you cut it off right there, after that first kiss. Then you have a story for children.”
Note: Sleeping Beauty will be released theatrically in select American cities in July 2011