A Dream Walking: Desire and Fantasy in Catherine Breillat's "The Sleeping Beauty"

Curator's Note

There is a sinister and tragic element that underlines popular fairy tales. Elements of the fantastic become interspersed with anxieties and desires revolving around identification. At the core of many of Hans Christian Anderson's reinterpretations of various folk tales was an aura of melancholy surrounding the personal sacrifices made for the sake of dreams. Stories such as "The Little Mermaid" become all too familiar as the macro tensions of social expectations and cultural roles obstruct the dreams of the individual. The fantasy becomes all the more cruel and heartrending as individual hopes and goals prove to be unattainable.

Director Catherine Breillat reconstructs these elements of the fairy tale by emphasizing the necessity of consistently shifting identities. The Sleeping Beauty (2010) incorporates elements of satire, horror, and pornography to reassess the dormant protagonist of Charles Perrault's classic story. Unlike Julia Leigh's film of the same name, Breillat is less interested in a distanced clinical examination that reaffirms and lingers on elements of rape and necrophilia permeating the tale (in earlier Italian variants, a king rapes the sleeping princess and abandons her, and only after birthing several children does beauty eventually awake). Instead, much of the film centers on the internalized desires of tomboy Anastasia (based loosely off of tsarina Anastasia, considered a tomboy in her day). Her dream becomes a quest utilizing elements of Anderson's "The Snow Queen" to save her brother, yet this heroic journey is disrupted by the inevitable kiss. The film deemphasizes the curse of sleep as Anastasia looks forward to her fantasy adventure and the ability to skip through adolescence. Her awakening is even less dramatic as Breillat makes no separation from the waking world, fantasy, and the passing of time. Instead, Breillat centers on the need for reformulating desires."Prince Charming" proves to be an irresolute teenager that eventually leaves Anastasia pregnant. Anastasia is forced to negotiate between her desires and external heteronormative pressures. By updating the provincial nature of the tale, The Sleeping Beauty suggests that the failure of dreams to contend with reality is not tragic, but inevitable.


Wow, you have a brilliantly written argument and piece here. I immediately want to see this film not only because of it's surface fairy tale element, but it's deeper twists of it. I think fairy tales deal with this dream vs. reality element that you bring up a great deal, especially by the audience. In the past fairy tales were used as a way to illustrate a moral lesson. Later on, especially with Disney adaptations of them, they became more dream-like escapes for the audience. And now with modern retellings, it seems like it's become a new level entirely, one that brings the dream-like state into the reality and forcing the audience to get rid of their original ideas and notions of fairy tales and see them in this new light. 

 The fact that the character is loosely based on tsarina Anastasia, around whom a kind of modern fairy tale of dramatic escape, hidden identity, and eventual reascendence to the throne, has sprung up, is really intriguing to me. Having not seen the film (yet!), I can't comment on how this factors into the story, but I'm curious about your interpretation of Breillat's decision to bring Anastasia into this mix of more classic fairy tale influences.

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