I find myself with incredibly little to say about Catherine Breillat’s new movie, The Sleeping Beauty, perhaps because I’m sick to death of fairy tales, and perhaps because it’s nothing more than what is advertised: a gorgeous and flush re-telling of a classic story that reads latent sexuality in the relationships children have with their own fantasies. In other words, it’s a film by a French auteur.
Very few people I know have any idea who Catherine Breillat is, and those who do are pretty serious cinephiles. I was first introduced to her by my friend Liv, a film theory student at Columbia, who was a big fan of her film Bluebeard (2009).
I watched it, I liked it, and I then recommended it to Silky Wilky, who watched it, and hated it, and told me that he’s never trusting a movie recommendation I make ever again.
Let’s just say that Catherine Breillat is not for everyone, and most particularly, not for the (mostly) hairier gender.
The best way to describe The Sleeping Beauty is to use the abhorrent—but precise—word “Brechtian,” which, like most academic terms, is impossible to define because it’s become so convoluted with critical theory that no one really understands what it means.
If I were to give a stab at trying to explain it in the language of my stupid fucking blog, I would say that it’s like you’re watching a bunch of hipsters up on a stage, re-enacting depression or something they idealize (but don’t really feel), but not in a super dramatic way, because they’re just like, detached, you know? So instead, they’re just like “Whatever, I just stabbed myself through the eye with a pencil, are you bored yet? I’m bored too.”
And then the audience is like, “Ok, um, what the fuck? I feel nothing but confusion right now because this play makes no sense, but I guess if I were trying hard enough, it could lead me to some self-reflection or whatever. But I better think of something intelligent to say anyway, because I’m brilliant, right? I can argue my way out of my own justified incomprehension, right? Don’t you think so? What did you think? No, I’m not insecure.”
I guess what I’m trying to say is that one doesn’t go to The Sleeping Beauty to be entertained in the traditional sense. You go because Breillat is pretty hot right now in certain circles, and because the film is gorgeous and experimental, and because the little girl who plays Princess Anastasia is just about one of the most compelling little trolls (and I mean troll affectionately) stomping her way through the world on other side of the silver screen.
Breillat’s Anastasia (or Sleeping Beauty) is born into a vaguely Russian world, devoid of men, that is less a simulacra of reality and more the set of a home theater. Watching it, I felt like I was a voyeur at a Christmas Eve play put on by the slightly perverted Little Women for Marmee while Mr. March is away fighting in the Civil War. Like the actresses in the film are sisters who had dug around their particularly fancy dress-up trunks, and then hastily rehearsed a play as a diversion on a cold winter evening.
The narrative unfolds in a manner somewhat true to the original story. Anastasia is cursed by an evil crone, and then saved by good fairies. She grows into a burly little tomboy, who would rather be climbing trees than practicing her ballet. At the age of six (rather than sixteen), her hand is impaled (rather than pricked) by a poisoned chopstick (making sense is not the point), and descends into the dream world that she will inhabit, suspended as a child, for the next 100 years.
I was going to say the dream world is “kind of” like Alice in Wonderland, but actually, it’s almost exactly like Alice in Wonderland. Kind of. There are strange characters, and rulers of fantasy lands, and reindeer, and impossible quests. Gypsies, and albinos and midgets, oh my! And a lot of pastel colored food. Anastasia pouts and laughs and relishes in all of it, and then she comes of age. Voilá.
It’s beautiful, and strange, and magical, especially the parts when Anastasia runs through the forest in toe shoes.
Along the way, Anastasia is adopted by a family that consists of a mother and a son, The son, Peter, has a budding and feeble moustache, and touches his new sister a bit too much, in the innocent way that children, not yet fully aware of their sexuality, often do. (What, that didn’t happen in your family?)
He reaches puberty, and Anastasia becomes repulsive to him, both because she is not yet old enough to be de-flowered, and because she is not yet old enough to de-flower him. So he runs away with the Ice Queen, who steals his innocence with a kiss.
For the rest of the movie, Anastasia searches for Peter, who turns out to be her true love. Right as she’s about to find him, in a snow crusted landscape, she wakes up, in the castle where she was born 100 years earlier, by a young, very French man who looks an uncomfortable amount like Gael García Bernal.
She is sixteen years old, with budding little breasts and the lingering imprint of Peter stamped on her subconscious.
The Gael García Bernal lookalike turns out to be the great grandson of Peter. And thus, blah blah blah, Breillat explores Anastasia’s sexuality, and her de-flowering. There is some lesbian sex involved.
Coming of age is painful, and horrible, especially given the fact that Anastasia, for the entirety of her de-flowering, is wearing awful hair extensions.
But then it becomes kind of empowering, because it turns out that Anastasia is kind of into sado-masochism and also, she cuts her hair.
What, Breillat seems to ask, would happen to a fairy tale princess if she awoke in the modern day world? The answer seems to be that she’ll lose her innocence. Duh.
I guess there’s no harm in following troupes (I wrote troupes, but I meant tropes, and that is a real guffaw!). I’ll probably never watch the movie again, but if I do, I’ll do so only visually, without the subtitles. And I’ll turn it off right as Anastasia wakes up to the world I don’t really want to be reminded is my own.
For in that world, love is painful and fraught with a distance worsened by physical proximity. The fantasies of childhood cease to be hopeful, and while they linger and continue to foment desire, they can no longer be trusted. They become past memories, in a present that manifests fantasies bleakly, in the real world, full of disappointment and quenched dreams.