Oh, France. You started the Festival out so well and went downhill from there. Catherine Breillat is best known in her home country for adapting Charles Perrault’s fairytale Bluebeard into a feminist ode to the female spirit and attacking patriarchal sexual politics. I never saw it (wonder why) but it was given a positive reception by critics and was successful enough to inspire Breillat to return to the well with an adaptation of Perrault’s La Belle Endormie/Sleeping Beauty. Despite pulsating with female nudity and casual lesbianism (“but remember this is art not porn, so keep your coat on”), there’s little here that suggests much filmmaking talent beneath an aesthetic desire to shock.
Considering Breillat is not lacking recognition, the film’s most initially startling attribute is the lack of quality production values. There’s a stink of low-budget television movie in the cheap costumes, stunted script and lousy special effects. Not knowing much about the film going in and hoping for something twisted and Gothic, my initial reaction was that these cutbacks must have been part of some French attempt at humour: by the time a ‘magic wand’ (read: twig) sparkles with a glow that could have been inserted from any second-rate home movie editing application, I was entirely convinced of it. The debilitating boredom that set in for the rest of the film proved how wrong I was.
There are a handful of attractive shots to be found: protagonist Anastasia (played as a six-year old by the adorable and funny Carla Besnainou) riding a deer across a snow-covered mountainscape is a rare and successful attempt at being cinematic, a wardrobe bedroom where the shelved walls are stacked with alarm clocks makes a gently amusing image that plays on our familiarity with the original fairytale, while the opening scene of teenage witches skinny-dipping in a waterfall pool catches the eye for, um, several reasons. Whether intentionally or not, a piece of background graffiti for Joy Division that appears as Anastasia first explores her dream world is also hilarious. For the most part though, Breillat seems more interested in finding the most practical way of recording the action than making each shot engaging, not helped by some choppy editing. Many of the locations show potential for being beautiful or evocative, but are wasted by perfunctory props, costume and framing.
Breillat’s themes emerge quickly and forcefully. Baby princess Anastasia is condemned by a bitter old hag to prick her finger and fall into a hundred-year sleep, but three younger (and more attractive) witches also attending the birth attempt to remedy the curse by bringing forward the date of her enchantment to her sixth birthday and having her wake up ten years older. Why? “Growing up stinks, better to go through it dreaming.” Having sustained said injury following a slightly unsettling kabuki performance by the six-year old princess’ friends, she falls into the dream world where she must prepare herself for adolescence. After wandering through various scenarios vaguely symbolising different stages of childhood growth, she awakens as a sexually curious sixteen year old and immediately attracts the attention of a young man exploring her castle (steady now). Unfortunately for her, real life romances aren’t as easy the fairytale ideal.
There are obvious allegories to sexual awakening and crossover between fantasy and reality, but the script reduces much to this to interminable dialogue scenes that dally around themes without evolving or taking them in any interesting directions. Having the teenage Anastasia only allow her beau to undo a few buttons on her corset each night and his subsequent frustration forms a witty allegory contrasting classical standards of wooing to the modern expectation of instant gratification, but ditches the idea after a handful of scenes. Even at under ninety minutes, Breillat’s film feels both underdeveloped and overlong at the same time.