[7 July 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“I’m Sir Vladimir.” Standing on a tree branch, six-year-old Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) looks out over a large, empty lawn. Pressing her luck, she hangs—her knees over the branch, her hair long and loose. A moment later, her father (Jean-Philippe Tessé) appears to take her down, and to bring her back inside. “You must realize you are not a boy,” he instructs, and when the child asserts that she’s a knight, he adds, “Unfortunately, nature decided otherwise.” Anastasia literally stomps her foot: “I am the princess and I decide.” And here, her father sums up, “No.”
Being the princess in a movie by Catherine Breillat, Anastasia fights this fate. And, being the princess in The Sleeping Beauty (La belle endormie), she’s up against forces more powerful than her father’s will. If that will seems expressed succinctly in the single word, “unfortunately,” it is also expansive, ambiguous, and wholly resonant, a will ordained and accepted and so, circular. As Anastasia will come to find out, the world around her—and inside her, too—is a function of the ouroboros, the serpent that eats its own tail. Her trials will be ceaseless and her lessons painful. And while boys will go forth, she will remain.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that Anastasia is still. In this version of the fairy tale—the second in Breillat’s planned trilogy of such revisions, following 2009’s Bluebeard and before Beauty and the Beast—the princess dreams, vividly and not always coherently. The curse this time has her going under at age six and waking, 100 years later, at age 16 (when she will be played by Julia Artamonov). Cursed by a witch, the child is early on aware of the limits she faces, surrounding herself with ticking alarm clocks at night (“My brave foot soldiers,” she calls them) and declaring her love of dictionaries, which provide not only stories but also, she insists, meanings. In words, she knows, that world around her is shaped and reshaped. As she drops off to sleep over the entry for “hermaphrodite,” the frame is nearly filled with her lush green blanket, an emblem of her mind’s own vibrant life.
Still, her story is inexorable, and even as she may extract meaning from it, she must also endure it. And so she enters into her century of slumber, not quite prepared by her mother, who outfits her in a crisp tutu, pink kimono top, and face paint. Looking like an archetypal femme, she’s then penetrated—her palm bloodied by a dark spike—as her adventure begins. This unsubtle initiation exemplifies the film’s combination of overstatement and abstraction. Ever resistant, Anastasia is unimpressed by a boil-covered giant (Dominique Hulin) who comes at her in one of those nightmarish nether-regions, part basement and part cave.
After she bests the ogre at a test of his own devising, Anastasia is let loose into her dream. This begins with a train ride to a farmhouse, where she comes upon a single mother (Anne-Lise Kedves) and her preteenish son, Peter (Kérian Mayan). As he wonders whether his mother has at last delivered the “kid sister you promised,” they admire that Anastasia is “a real little girl made of flesh and blood,” and proceed to dress her in Peter’s old clothes. If she’s not quite a boy, she’s something better, a tomboy.
They children spend happy fairy tale time together, romping in the fields, tending to thorny rose bushes, contemplating the possibilities of “eternity.” Sharing a bedroom at night, the family is content, until, of course, they are not. Peter is struck by a new view, less “rosy” than before, and laments the “boredom, the only constant” of his current existence. “You’ve reached the awkward age,” observes his mother, that age that will pretty much define his life as a man—or so you might guess, as Peter is from this point disappeared from the picture, a figment of Anastasia’s imagination, stagnant and seductive. She doesn’t see where he goes—though you do—which is into the arms of the Snow Queen (Romane Portail). One kiss is all she grants him, as another “would be certain death.” He yearns, she withholds, and as they sweep off into the snowy night, Anastasia, his sort-of-sister, makes it her dream-long mission to find him again.
The irony here is thick, of course, as the independent-minded girl sets her sights on such a mundane and so definitively male object. But she’s only six (or so), which means that her self-understanding remains corporeal in the most basic ways. Stirred by Peter, she pursues him, or the idea of him, as both brother and lover. She’s not about to sort out the particulars of either role, but she understands that she wants him. And as she pursues him, she comes on a series or other sensual pleasures, at once distracting and defining.
These range from pink cakes (offered by a pair of albino royals, two pale children who know how to indulge) to sharp blades, wielded by the dark-haired bandit princess (Luna Charpentier). “You sleep with your knife in your bed?” wonders Anastasia. “Yes,” says the bandit, seeing that this both frightens and titillates her prisoner. “If I press harder,” she says, the shiny edge close on Anastasia’s neck “Blood will spurt and I’m itching to do it, but once I’ve slaughtered you, I’ll regret it.”
Though Anastasia clings to the idea of Peter, the film makes clear, in this scene and when the girls are reunited as teens (and the bandit is played by Rhizlaine El Cohen), that her desire for self-understanding might only begin to be fulfilled with another girl. This isn’t to say that she finds herself a lesbian: she’s not defined as such. But her restlessness—at six and at 16—can never be assuaged by the world made and monitored by boys.
If, as the teenaged, newly awakened Anastasia says, “I hated little girls,” her feelings are never quite her own. Instead, like boys’ feelings too, they’re framed by expectations, politics, and even, as her father once told her, “nature”—as nature is perpetually re-constructed by culture. According to The Sleeping Beauty, this process is awkward, disturbing, and, once exposed, rather too obvious.