Following her typically idiosyncratic revision of “Bluebeard,” Gallic helmer Catherine Breillat fractures another fairy tale with “The Sleeping Beauty.” The story’s ending may be happier this time around, but the overall result is less felicitous than its brisker, more focused predecessor. Actually something of a mashup between Charles Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” — and featuring the erotic edges and anachronistic intellectual barbs expected of a Breillat pic — the film has provocative and compelling moments but feels too fragmented to match the helmer’s best work. This “Beauty” will entrance only niche auds.
The action starts in a fairy-tale realm with the birth of Princess Anastasia, whom an old crone (Rosine Favey) curses to die young. Three fairies (Dounia Sichov, Leslie Lipkins and Camille Chalons) modify the curse’s terms, however, so that Anastasia will fall asleep when she’s 6 and wake up 100 years later as a beautiful 16-year-old.
After her fated encounter with slumber-inducing sharp object, tomboyish 6-year-old Anastasia (played by charming Carla Besnainou) enters a dream world where she has a series of picaresque adventures. First stop is a modest farmhouse where she’s taken in by a widow (Anne-Lise Kedves) and her adolescent son, Peter (Kerian Mayan). Unfortunately, Peter is lured away by the Snow Queen (Romane Portail), and Anastasia sets off to find the boy she considers part brother, part intended.
Writer-helmer Breillat playfully mixes up the elements and throws in more than a few curveballs, including having her grown heroine (eventually played by Julia Artamonov) enjoy a Sapphic tryst with a luscious Gypsy girl (Rhizlaine El Cohen) before entering into a fractious relationship with Peter’s descendant Johan (David Chausse).
Like the writers Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood, Breillat delights in forcing fairy-tale and classical fiction through a feminist mincer to create a very modern flavor, although in the end, the pic’s texture is too splintered for its ideas to stand out.
No doubt by pure coincidence, the script structure of “The Sleeping Beauty” — with its dreams within fables within a not-quite-real contempo setting, and its elastic sense of time — is bizarrely similar to that of “Inception,” but done on a budget that probably wouldn’t have covered the cost of Leonardo DiCaprio’s trailer. There’s even a lost love turned malevolent, and a spooky train that steams through from time to time. But this dream world serves a very different function, carving out a realm of near-eternal childhood, allowing Breillat to reprise her preoccupation with the dark imaginings and not-entirely innocent longings of youth explored with such fertility in pics like “Fat Girl,” “36 Fillette,” and “A Real Young Girl.” Anastasia says at one point that she hates the world of little girls, but her creator is fascinated by them, in all their pink complexity.
Simple but elegant lensing on HD by Denis Lenoir lends a quotidian, matter-of-fact quality that enhances the modernity of the concept, and contrasts charmingly with the gleefully outlandish period dress, courtesy of Rose-Marie Melka’s designs.