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Directed & Written by Catherine Breillat
Produced by Sylvette Frydman & Jean-François LePetit
Released by Strand Releasing
France. 82 min. Not Rated
Clara Besnainou, Julia Artamonov, Kerian Mayan & David Chausse

Catherine Breillat has frankly upended perceptions of adolescence female sexuality in 36 Fillette (1988), and Fat Girl (2001). She is now in the midst of going further back to reclaim the psychological power of fairy tales. The Sleeping Beauty is her second in a planned trilogy of re-imagined classic stories that emphasize girls’ options, first with Bluebeard  (2009) and next, Beauty and the Beast.

The traditional view of Sleeping Beauty is a passive prone figure at the mercy of external forces. Not so much here. The infant Anastasia begins life pulled between competing women, pressures she will have to learn to navigate. She is cursed by the usual wicked old witch to die at age 16 from a prick on a spindle, but three beautiful, though dilatory, fairies each ameliorate her fate such that she will instead fall asleep at six, dream for 100 years, and awake in the full flush of puberty (and feminism). In her first six years as princess (the adorably self-assured Carla Besainou), she is a frilly tomboy, a knight in pink who pretends to be a boy named Vladimir. Then she welcomes her magical sleep as a release (“Life is boring!”), and the striking images of what Sleeping Beauty was dreaming all those years are the heart of the film, with lovely cinematography by Denis Lenoir and production design by Francois-Renaud LaBarthe that make her fantasy quite real.

Breillat borrows from and twists the Jungian collective unconscious of several stories (notably by Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen) filtered through the girl’s active imagination. Anastasia sets out on the hero’s typical quest—but in kimono and ballet slippers—passing through a train station controlled by dwarves until she lands at an iconic cottage in the forest. There she has her first infatuation as she lives alongside a boy, Peter (Kerian Mayan), and his mother until he is seduced away by the frosty temptations of the Snow Queen. Anastasia follows his trail (on a doe, not a stallion), hoping to melt his now cold, cold heart, but is waylaid by magical and delightful adventures of her own, including with a banditress, who will haunt her dreams in the future. A freeing encounter with an ageless band of Gypsies stirs and broadens her nascent sexuality with their music and dancing. (Their primal joie de vivre would seem a bit stereotyped if Breillat wasn’t also trying to counter rising French discrimination against the Romany.)

At age 16, Anastasia (now played by Julia Artamonov) awakens, motherless, to a kiss from Peter’s handsome descendant Johan (David Chausse), who is adept at unbuttoning her old-fashioned dress in the modern world. But Prince Charming will be just one passing passion in her life, including the return of the Gypsy girl who is a better kisser, for the path she will take to her own happy ever after in the real world.

In a film originally produced for French TV for a broad audience, the feminist lessons are more charmingly symbolic than didactic. Released in the U.S. without a rating, the naked frolicking fairies and supine boy/girl and girl/girl teenagers in bed, let alone the English subtitles, could restrict teenage girls, as adventurous as Anastasia, from seeing the film—but not their mothers, in touch with their inner teen frustrated by traditional fairy tales. Nora Lee Mandel
July 8, 2011



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