Born a princess, Anastasia (Carla Besainou) is cursed by Carabosse (Rosine Favey) to die at sixteen from the prick of a yew spindle, but her three good fairy godmothers (Dounia Sichov, Leslie Lipkins and Camille Chalons), while not able to reverse the spell, change the death sentence to one of sleep for a hundred years at the age of six. They worry about what might change in that time and whether she will be alone and arrange for her to awaken under the guard of a handsome man in "The Sleeping Beauty."
Feminist writer/director Catherine Breillat ("Fat Girl") is known for her frank and explicit explorations of female sexuality and this is the second use of fairy tale, after 2009's "Bluebeard," to do so. Made for French television (! only in France...), which might explain the less than fantastical Snow Queen sequences, "The Sleeping Beauty" plays like a Narnia tale in which the underlying lesson is not on the laws of Christianity but sexual awakening.
Anastasia chafes against society's gender expectations, climbing trees and proclaiming herself a knight named Vladimir, so it is ironic that when her hand is prophetically pierced, she is in kimono ballet costume complete with elaborate hair and makeup. She descends to the depths of the castle, where a man covered in boils ('I represent your rotting flesh,' he tells her) demands that she knock down piles of bones to get past his gate or die. She 'bowls' down three piles with skulls and proceeds through the woods where she is found by a widowed railway signal attendant (Anne-Lise Kedves). Bathed and given boys clothes, which delight her, Anastasia is happy becoming the 'sister' to the woman's teenaged son, Peter (Kérian Mayan), who dotes on her. She is troubled by Peter's grooming of the rose bushes outside the quaint cottage, but trusts in him. But Peter is seduced by the Snow Queen (there is a lot of this Hans Christian Andersen tale in the mix) and his heart is turned to ice. When he leaves, Anastasia sets out on a journey to find him.
Along the way she will stop at a train depot where a dwarf station master tells her no foreigners are welcome and where the prison is full because the Prince is cruel, but Anastasia makes her way to the palace anyway where she is hidden in a hall clock (Anastasia loves timepieces and Breillat notes the passage of time constantly, as something humans waste, as a leveler of sexual seductiveness but not of power, and with the adult dwarves who serve children). When she is released after counting seven hours worth of tick-tocks, she creeps into the royal bedroom, believing she will find the good Peter. Instead she has roused the albino child Prince (Paul Vernet) Princesse (Laurine David), who wonder why she should not be executed for her impertinence. When Anastasia explains the qualities of the man she was seeking, the royal pair befriend her. When she leaves their care in a coach, she is dressed in finery and furs and wearing a watch gifted from the princess. But her coach is held up by gypsies led by a young girl (Luna Charpentier) who threatens her life. When Anastasia does not back down, she is admired for her pluck and befriended again, even though the gypsy admits 'itching' to use her knife because it excites her. A trip to Lapland on the doe the gypsy had intended to slaughter is the film's visual highlight, all magical white landscape and Northern Lights. The seer Anastasia visits, though, merely tells her she has had everything in her power all along to find Peter. The 100 years of dreaming are over, the snowy landscape becomes a snow-white dress outwardly expressing her virginity and she (now played by Julia Artamanov) is awoken by the handsome Johan (David Chausse), Peter's great grandson, in her castle. But Breillat would never end her fairy tale with the princess living happily ever after because of a good-looking man.
Although the three fairies anticipated Anastasia's century hopping problem, she is only somewhat handicapped by dress and social custom. Johan is fascinated by her Victorian dress which turns him on. When he asks why she wears a painful whalebone corset, she replies 'We must suffer for our beauty,' recalling Peter's pruning of the roses. She is faster in the romance department than he, used to arranged situations, and he returns to a modern girl. The gypsy returns as a woman (Rhizlaine El Cohen) in dream and awakens Anastasia's lust with lesbian sex so that she feels free to give herself to Johan when he returns, but when he next finds her she has entered his world and encumbered with her mother's fate of teenaged pregnancy.
Breillat's dialogue is rife with both literal sexual definitions (Anastasia looks up hermaphrodite in the dictionary after falling from a tree, then puberty when Peter turns on her) and innuendo ('I'd love to have a doll like you' Anastasia tells an adult male mannequin, then the gypsy's 'You should get under my furs'). Her reflections on the passage of time both condemn older women and empower them, but also chide the human tendency to waste it and history to repeat it. The production shows its lower budget - special effects from fairy wands and Peter's journey on the Snow Queen's sleigh look cheesy but location work is often beautiful, from the fairy tale quality of the widow's cottage to the albino royals' overgrown conservatory. Interior coupling tableaux are rich and painterly, exploiting Artamanov's snow white skin. Costume is imaginative.
Breillat gets a terrific performance from Besainou as the inquisitive and rebellious Anastasia which is well matched physically with the elder Artamanov, who adds teenaged angst and a bit of arrogance to the character's rebellious spirit. Some of the supporting players, though, especially in the early castle sequences, are wooden.
"The Sleeping Beauty's" television origins show (in production values, not explicitness!), but Breillat's themes continue woven into a fairy tale world.
Robin did not see this film.
and Ratings Archive | Top
10 | Video
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.