“The Sleeping Beauty”
Most dreams are fleeting, gone instants after waking up. Then there are others, vivid and beautiful, that seem astoundingly real. So real that the moment they cut off, mid-action, you simply lie awake, wondering what just happened.
That’s what The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie) is like. The second in a planned trilogy of fairy tale-inspired films by French director Catherine Breillat, the film layers a feminist coming-of-age story within a matrix of waking dreams.
The story is built around the same framework as traditional Sleeping Beauty tales (evil witch curses the princess to die, fairy godmothers change the curse to a century’s slumber and a brave prince eventually awakens the ageless sleeper), but diverges quickly. The princess, Anastasia, is still cursed, but her godmothers instead decree she will begin her slumber at age 6, live in a world of dreams, and awaken at age 16, 100 years later.
Moments later, without much warning, we’re in that dreamworld. And what a world it is. A mix of forests, palaces and frozen tundras, all changing without only slightly more warning than the initial jump.
Lost Anastasia initially stumbles across a mother and her son, and is quickly adopted into their family. That family is soon shattered, though, when Anastasia’s new brother Peter is entranced by a beautiful Snow Queen and abandons them.
Then, yet again, without warning, we wake up, in a bedroom with a prince and a waking princess, wondering what just happened. As the scene goes on, we remember the story’s setup, and that all we’ve seen is nothing but a girl’s dream.
It’s a reminder that doesn’t stick. It can’t, what with Anastacia’s prince, Johan, so strongly resembling her lost brother Peter. Or with her bandit companion suddenly returning, to become a friend – and eventual lover – to the isolated princess.
The blurring of reality and fantasy isn’t accidental. It’s woven throughout, the “real” scenes seeming like dreams and the central “dream” seeming most real of all the sequences.
It’s a disorienting way to structure the film. Yes, the abrupt shifts of the film emphasize the nature of dreams versus reality, but they jar the viewer, almost vulgar in their coarseness.
The last is the only exception, although it’s only after reflection that it feels so. Not the transition from dream to modern reality — the one after which occurs about four or five minutes before the film’s ultimate drop-off ending. It’s a shift you don’t see coming, revealing the prior “reality” to be almost as much of a fantasy. I hated watching those last few scenes as they happened, but, upon reflection, they’re the best moments in the film.
That’s not to say the rest of the film is subpar, because it’s not. It’s just beautiful. And the problem with being beautiful, as we and Anastasia learn, is that you become defined by your beauty, and not anything else that’s inside you.
The Sleeping Beauty is the same way. The majority of the film is too entrancing to be adequately judged on its merits, which aren’t always substantial. But in those last few minutes, where beauty and fantasy (two sides of the same coin, as it turns out) fade, there’s something real there. Fantastically real.
The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie) is part of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s selection of Fiction Festival Favorites. The film is being screened on Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7:15 p.m. at North Shore Cinema, Thursday, Sept. 29 at 9:45 p.m. at Ridge Cinema, and Saturday, Oct. 1 at Downer Theatre. For tickets or more information, visit the festival’s website, call (414) 727-8468 or stop by one of the theater box offices.