Provocative French filmmaker Catherine Breillat made 2009’s Bluebeard one of her best films, but she doesn’t hit the same highs with her latest fairy-tale re-do, The Sleeping Beauty. By adding riffs on The Snow Queen and other folklore to the original story, she robs The Sleeping Beauty of the directness of Bluebeard, which contrasted a simple, naturalistic retelling of Charles Perrault’s original tale with a framing device that spoke to the cruelty of stories. The new film is much looser, starting with the familiar basics of Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty, then heading off on odd tangents that turn the movie into a meditation on puberty, irrational romantic crushes, and the loss of virginity.
Carla Besnaïnou plays the young princess, who defies her birth-curse—the one about pricking her finger on a spindle and dying at age 15—by embarking on a series of interlocking quests. First she moves in with a peasant family, where she develops a crush on a kindly teenage boy. Then, when the boy gets seduced by The Snow Queen and turns surly, she endeavors to save him. Along the way, she meets spiritualists, aristocratic siblings, and helpful beasts, and in spite of her best efforts to avoid it, she does grow into womanhood (at which point she’s played by Julia Artamonov), finding herself plagued by the sexual desire and petty jealousy that go with becoming an adult.
It’s clear what Breillat is trying to do here in the abstract—and The Sleeping Beauty is never less than gorgeous to look at—but the movie doesn’t hang together as a story, and “stories” are what these fairy tales are meant to deliver. There’s no reason why Breillat couldn’t deal with the same themes in a movie that followed the Perrault version more closely (again, à la Bluebeard). Instead, Breillat tags along with her heroine from 6 to 16, as she travels through time and around the globe, meeting colorful characters and having allusive conversations about growing up. The results are impressionistic and thought-provoking, but too intellectualized to penetrate deeply.