The Sleeping Beauty (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
When Anastasia is born, a witch (Odile Mallet) puts a curse on her, condemning the child to die at the age of sixteen. Three fairies are unable to dispel the hex but are capable of altering it. Instead of her life being taken away, Anastasia will fall into a deep sleep at age six (Carla Besnaïnou), wake up a hundred years later, and will look like a sixteen-year-old (Julia Artamonov). Meanwhile, as the child is in a coma, her mind enters a world that appears to resemble reality at first glance but is actually ruled by fantastic creatures like an evil Snow Queen, aristocratic dwarfs, and a giant covered in boils.
It takes a bit of time to get into the groove of the way “La belle endormie,” directed by Catherine Breillat, is told perhaps because many of the characters’ actions are performed without explanation. For instance, we aren’t informed why the witch decides to put a spell on an innocent child other than a fairytale-based assumption that old women in black cloaks are born bad and therefore must act bad. After the witch casts her magic, we never hear from her again. Though its template is that of a fairytale, this is far from a conventional story where the heroes or heroines must face the lead villain before living happily ever after.
In its own strange way, it works. One of its quietest but most important scenes is the six-year-old Anastasia reading a dictionary as her hobby. She claims that it takes her on all sorts of adventures because each vocabulary word feels like an entire story. This scene stood out to me because I used to read the dictionary as a kid (nerd alert!) and I understood what she meant by being so immersed or entertained by a word, subconsciously her imagination is pushed to expand in countless directions.
In my opinion, when most of us read a definition of a word in a dictionary, we have a superficial understanding of what is communicated but we are often blind to its underlying meanings (and multiple meanings) and assumptions. This is because we have a proclivity to focus on the words on the page. Unless we really think about it, we tend to overlook the complexity of a foreign word. The interactions between the characters in the film is similar to this in that they talk to each other about their goals but there isn’t much content in their exchanges. They talk as quickly as they move on. It wouldn’t be unfair for someone to criticize the dialogue for being wooden or hollow.
The part I enjoyed significantly less is when Anastasia wakes up as a teenager. The technique of superficiality feels inappropriate given the fact that Anastasia meets Johan (David Chausse), someone who might be interested in her sexually. Because it chooses not to delve deeply into their psychologies, there is a detachment between us and the subjects. It works in the first half because we do not want to see harm befall a child during her adventures. In the last act, however, it doesn’t work. Instead, it feels like watching a bad play where the actors act rather well but there’s no substance behind their torment.
“The Sleeping Beauty” blends fantasy and reality seamlessly so it is engaging as a visual experience. It is also unpredictable because the screenplay is not at all concerned about tying up loose ends. So loyal to its vision, I wondered at times who its target audience might be. It certainly isn’t for family and children. But perhaps it is for people wishing to flood their taste buds with an experimental flavor.