was an insomniac...
She could not nap
or lie in sleep
without the court chemist
mixing her some knock-out drops
and never in the prince's presence.”
So wrote Anne Sexton in her powerful collection of poetry, Transformations, which reimagines and personalizes every familiar fairytale. Released in 1971, these poems present a take on fairytales that’s even more brutal than the version in Andrew Lang’s once-controversial “color” fairytale books.
French director Catherine Breillat calls to mind Sexton’s poems in her recent film The Sleeping Beauty. A life-long lover of dark versions of fairytales, I had very mixed feelings as I watched the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival this week.
The Sleeping Beauty starts out with some intensely beautiful images, moments in the movie that evoke the elemental, enchanted, and highly-associative nature of how many imaginative children see the world. It deviates considerably from the Charles Perrault fairytale (and from the folktales on which the Perrault version is based, Aarne Thompson folktale type 401), but that is part of its charm.
The little actress who plays Sleeping Beauty is strangely appealing, too. While her dialogue, as well as other characters’ dialogue, is disjointed, that only adds to the dreamlike quality of the film. As you watch, the movie builds on that disjointed quality by creating incredible suspense. Breillat guides the viewer through all sorts of “pricking” scenes that could be the one fated prick that puts Sleeping Beauty to sleep (hanging from a branch, a scene with bees and the stabbing of a hand during a play). By using a sequence, rather than the conventional scene, Breillat forces the viewer to pay close attention in order to see the pivotal prick.
The boundary between wakefulness and dreaming is blurred, if not wholly rubbed-out, throughout the film. Only after Sleeping Beauty winds up at a semi-modern house, adopted by a boy and his mother does it become apparent that the movie is wholly focused on her dream, rather than the things that happen while she’s sleeping.
Once the little girl meets a Lynchian midget, the movie spirals out of control. Cleverly disregarding logic and its own title (like a dream), the film transforms into a retelling of the Snow Queen fairytale. In that less-known story, a little girl travels to rescue her brother from the Snow Queen and takes up with a robber girl.
Formally, the movie adopts an interesting internal logic. In the last twenty minutes of early sexuality, however, the movie deviates from a semi-organic narrative into an outright 1970s/1980s feminist diatribe. It’s almost as if Breillat, a professor as well as an auteur, never outgrew or moved past academic women studies discussions from that time period.
Where the child was incredibly appealing in her precociousness, her awakened teenage self is, at best, annoying, smug and stoned. Perhaps that captures something true about adorably precocious children (that they are much less cute when they are teenagers). However, there was a lot of conceptual potential in this film to say something new about the relationships between the dream life of girls and boys and their differing sexualities. Relying solely on dreamy beauty instead of deep, original thought, the film squanders its potential in favor of a conventional grimness.