Director/Screenwriter: Catherine Breillat
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I think it’s very interesting that Catherine Breillat has continued her recently begun survey of female-centric fairy tales (the first, Bluebeard, premiered in 2009) with a film made for French television. Only in France, perhaps, could a controversial director with a penchant for filming explicit sex make a film certain to be watched by millions of girls—and that is certainly good news for the future women of France. For Breillat brings her feminist sensibilities to the story, borrowing freely from other fairy tales (mainly Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”), to create a hero’s journey for girls and both subtly and directly confronting male audiences with the damage they do to women.
The film opens with an old woman (Rosine Favey) laughing wickedly while holding in her arms a baby who looks only minutes old. She is a powerful fairy who intends to curse the child, a princess named Anastasia, to die at age 16 after pricking herself on a spindle made from a yew tree standing in the graveyard. Three young fairies (Douina Sichov, Leslie Lipkins, and Camille Chalon) arrive too late to prevent the old fairy’s curse because they stopped to bathe in a nearby pond. After a comic scene in which the fairies peck at each other about their boasts to more power than they have, each nonetheless is able to mitigate the sentence when they arrive to bestow their blessings on the princess: one says the girl will sleep rather than die, the next says she will fall under the spell at age 6 and dream a full life for 100 years, and the third offers her the gift of awakening at the age of 16 because “childhood lasts too long.”
The film moves immediately to a 6-year-old Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) who strains at the restrictions of being a girl and even proclaims she is really a boy named Vladimir. Perhaps in a fitting punishment for rejecting her gender, she is stricken with the spindle prick while dressed in a ridiculous pink kimono over a short, lacey tutu as she prepares to dance en pointe among a flock of similarly garbed girls. She finds herself in an underground cavern filled with skeletons and ruled over by a boil-covered man who says he is a reflection of her rotting flesh. She wins her way out of the cavern by bowling down some bones and goes into the wider world.
Anastasia is whisked by an empty train to a country of dwarves, who eject her. Her next and most important stop is a trackside cottage, where she is taken in by a woman (Anne-Lise Kedvès) and her son Peter (Kerian Mayan), and becomes Peter’s sister. She is delighted to shed her ballet costume and dress in Peter’s clothes, and the pair becomes inseparable. From this point on, the film moves forward in a faithful rendering of most of the parts of “The Snow Queen.” Peter looks into the face of the Snow Queen (Romane Portail) one snowy night. His heart is pierced with ice and his eye is tainted with a snowflake; his subsequent rejection of Anastasia and desire to break free is diagnosed by his mother as Peter reaching that Awkward Age. But one night, he leaves with the Snow Queen, and Anastasia sets off on her hero’s quest to find him and melt his heart. Her quest will take her back to the country of dwarves and a meeting with their albino king and queen, onto an encounter with the bandit maiden (Luna Charpentier) and her gang when they attack her coach, and finally on a doe-back ride to Lapland before we return to the castle where the story began. The 16-year-old Anastasia (Julia Artamonov) awakens to the sight of Johan (David Chausse), a handsome descendent of Peter, looking down upon her. If you’re waiting for a title card that says “They lived happily ever after,” you haven’t taken the lesson of the quest to heart.
Although the film is titled The Sleeping Beauty, all the action really occurs in “The Snow Queen” section of the film. This, I think, is Breillat’s strategy for turning the negative images of women Charles Perrault set to paper right on their head. First, Anastasia is no passive beauty who falls asleep just as she is awakening to sexual feelings. She may be a princess whose wish is others’ command, but she knows that she belongs to a second-class gender. The evil fairy is old, an image of a woman deformed by the self-loathing patriarchy engenders in women. The young fairies know they aren’t strong enough to fight the power, but it seems that the 100-year dormancy is a prayer that things will be better for women in the future.
Anastasia’s journey resembles Dorothy’s in Oz, right down to the little people, and ends with the shaman telling her that she has always had the power to defeat the Snow Queen, as evidenced by the fact that she won over many powerful and dangerous people and got them to help her. But the journey offers additional lessons. For example, Anastasia tells Peter he is being cruel by cutting back the rose bushes outside their home. Peter explains that brambles benefit from a cutting back, sending more shoots out during the growing season and producing flowers of many colors for all eternity. Anastasia answers that there is no eternity. Is it best to please ourselves by making the rose bushes produce abundant blooms, or might it be better to let them grow their own way, even if they stop looking beautiful or spread their prickly branches widely? Anastasia has an instinctive feeling toward the roses, but trusts in Peter’s love—a trust he will betray by falling for a projection of the feminine rather than the real thing.
When the film reaches past the traditional ending of “Sleeping Beauty,” Breillat brings Anastasia into the present. Anastasia flirts with Johan, letting him unbutton only a few of the many buttons running down the back of her old-fashioned dress. Her desire awakened, she imagines a mature version of the bandit maiden (Rhizlaine El Cohen) has returned. The young bandit excited Anastasia during her adventure by threatening to stab her, and their mutual excitement erupts again in a fantasy of lesbian love. Now prepared, Anastasia is ready to consummate her passion with Johan, but honestly tells him that her true love is Peter, that all men must understand that women stay true to their idealized lover. The next time Johan comes to see her, he finds only her dress. Heartbroken, he does not see her again until a few months later, walking down the street dressed provocatively in modern garb. She’s pregnant but rejects him nonetheless to live on her own terms, saying that she entered his world alone. The world of fairy tales, it seems, has nothing to offer modern women, a condition Breillat’s films might begin to repair if only she didn’t express so much pessimism about the possibility of gender equality and mutual support.
Breillat’s visual lyricism creates magic and whimsy. Watching Anastasia riding on the back of a doe across a snowswept vista is positively breathtaking, and the cast creates weirdly compelling tableaux awash in color and grandeur. The switch to the flat, unadorned world of today is a rude awakening that is perhaps a bit too bleak and heartless. Breillat has done much to explicate the feminine world to itself and to astute male viewers, but perhaps she is getting impatient at the lack of progress. I can only send words of encouragement to her and those who find so much inspiration in her work.