Catherine Breillat’s new fairy-tale film, The Sleeping Beauty, plays tonight at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, on Sunday at IFC Center, and Tuesday again at the FSLC, as part of this year’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema. Strand will release the film theatrically in July.
Fairy tales are so short, so slight, that when transposed to feature film length they must be padded. Disney accomplished this with songs; in Catherine Breillat’s latest, a loose adaptation of Perrault’s “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood,” she fills out the story with a fascinating hodgepodge of random enchanted images.
Most of the film takes place in the dreamlife of the eponymous dozing princess when she is cursed to sleep for 100 years, dreaming through her childhood of ages six to sixteen (which the modernized fairies declare is a “boring” time for girls anyway). Breillat is creative but madly unfocused in this glimpse into fairytale slumberland, where images from every bedtime story ever told co-mingle. Little girls, according to Breillat’s imagery here, are not made of sugar and spice and everything nice, but of short-fused cheap sparkles, steam trains, tutus, albino companions, bisexual gypsy dandies, and plastic cakes. Breillat throws it all in there in this fairy tale pastiche. (A strength here is the Snow Queen who pierces hearts with ice splinters and her cruel, come-hither glances. Perhaps this story of Hans Christian Andersen’s Queen of Permafrost, who numbs and could kill with a kiss, would have been a more engaging subject for Breillat.)
While there is obvious pleasure in seeing snow-bound tipis and lace veils made of spider webs, by the time the first midget appears even those with the highest whimsy thresholds are likely to have found tolerances worn thin. The images irritate as they pile up at a manic but wispy pace. Where is this going? And where is the Breillat film in this edgy saccharine mess?
The film includes one almost too recognizably Breillat shot of blasé sexual violence and degradation in an indifferent urban setting. Its placement in the story seems to illustrate an unwelcome moral: Women fall into the above scenario when they disappointingly discover that the fairy-tale-induced fantasy man they’ve been searching for does not exist. Oh dear. This cop-out of a moral, this sidestepping of the complexities a child’s mind and a girl’s romantic trajectory, seems especially disappointing from the director of Romance, The Last Mistress and last year’s earthy and interesting adaption of Perrault’s “Bluebeard.” (Although, to be fair, the moral of the original tale, which ends with the prince’s ogre mother attempting to eat his bride and brood, is a humorous caution against the wise-seeming practice of waiting too long for true love.)
The film that seems most like a Breillat film in the Rendez-Vous series is by longtime woman’s picture director Benoit Jacquot. One of the strongest works in his career is his latest, the period-set Deep in the Woods, which turns out to be a multifaceted yet focused examination of some complex aspects of rape, using sorcery as a substitute for sick maneuvers of predatory sexual power. A feminist exhale of relief, followed by a pause of weighty consideration, may be the reaction to seeing magic in fiction not as a stand in for women’s diabolical enchantment over men, but as a symbol for more unwieldy, difficult issues. Jacquot uses simple, deft techniques in this gnarly fairy tale illuminating hairy gender and sexual issues. The strong closing credits, not “The End” but “Deep in the Woods”, do not end with a message that all will or certainly will not live happily ever after, but instead ends in a fascinating hangover of irresolution.