This week in movies you missed: a fairy tale modernized for TV -- French TV, which means you can expect artiness and nudity.
What You Missed
Fairy tales are all the rage this fall on American television, with the pallid "Once Upon a Time" and the procedural "Grimm" shooting up the Nielsen ratings. But over in France, director (and provocateur) Catherine Breillat has already been there, done that. She followed up her controversial films, including Romance and Fat Girl, with adaptations of "Bluebeard" and "Sleeping Beauty" that put a modern, feminist spin on the coming-of-age aspects of the fables.
Which is exactly what "Once Upon a Time" does, but it does it by making Snow White a leather-wearing badass who saves Prince Charming and introduces herself as "Snow." Breillat's modernization of "Sleeping Beauty" isn't quite that obvious. At times it's downright opaque.
In this version of the story, which opens in the early 20th century, our princess appears to be an exiled member of the Russian royal family. (She's named Anastasia, like the famous Romanov.) After the evil fairy curses her to an early death, three good fairies (who are prone to the aforementioned nudity) step in and commute Anastasia's sentence: She will fall asleep at age 6 and wake a century later, at age 16.
Why this change in the story? Basically, it gives Breillat a chance to explore the adventures of a girl whose life spans generations and radical changes in cultural and sexual mores, much as Sally Potter did in her adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. When Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) falls asleep at 6, she's a wild tomboy by the standards of her era. When she awakes (and becomes older actress Julia Artamonov), she is a demure, almost Victorian maiden stuck in the 21st century. Her new boyfriend (David Chausse), who is definitely no prince, marvels at her corset.
In between those two stages, though, Anastasia sleeps and dreams. Her picaresque dreams form the bulk of the movie, taking it on detours into Alice in Wonderland territory and a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen."
Why You Missed It
Released back in July in the U.S., The Sleeping Beauty never got beyond three theaters.
Should You Keep Missing It?
The Sleeping Beauty unfolds in a series of beautiful, static tableaux, with lush sets and costumes and a painterly use of color. The "static" part is the problem.
Like Orlando (the movie, not the book), Breillat's film often feels stilted and disjointed, with florid romantic passages followed by long sequences that go nowhere. It has tons of ideas about women and men, love and sex, and childhood and puberty, but lacks a through-line or any persuasive emotional logic.
Breillat seems too ironically distanced from her material to make us really feel, for instance, Anastasia's girlish crush on Peter, the older boy she meets in her dream and still seeks when she wakes. Besnaïnou is a compelling little hellion, free of the studied cuteness that makes so many Hollywood kid actors hard to watch. But Breillat doesn't stick with Anastasia's perspective. Instead, she seems to be busy checking off enlightened female archetypes on a list: Anastasia's dream must include a crone figure and a representative of ethnic difference (a gypsy) who's also a lesbian. Which would be great, if it all cohered better.
Verdict: I recommend that all women's studies classes watch this film and then contrast it with the Grimm and Perrault versions of the tale and Disney's Sleeping Beauty. Hell, if nothing else, that'll generate discussion. Outside the academic context, I found it gorgeous and inert, much like its subject.
If you just want to try out Breillat without getting into her more intense material, this is a pretty staid option. I'm still curious about Fat Girl, so maybe I'll give that a try.
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