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Movie Review

The Sleeping Beauty

This ‘Sleeping Beauty’ grows up

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / August 19, 2011

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Ghost trains and ogres, lesbian gypsies and albino princesses: “The Sleeping Beauty’’ finds the French filmmaker Catherine Breillat in a playful mood once more. Her early movies - 2001’s “Fat Girl,’’ 2002’s “Sex Is Comedy,’’ 2004’s dire “Anatomy of Hell’’ - were fearsome gender deconstructions that wondered where young women of beauty and strength could fit into a society run by men, but with 2009’s “Blue Beard,’’ she began to pull the classic fairy tale into illuminated pieces. The new film is enchanting, a bedtime story told by a wickedly literate aunt with a gleam in her eye.

Charles Perrault wouldn’t recognize it, though, nor would Walt Disney. Breillat has woken Sleeping Beauty from her slumbers and made her the stalwart child hero of her own epic. The opening sections of the film take place in a gauzy 19th-century France, with pre-Raphaelite tresses on the fairies who bless and curse the young princess. Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou, a charmer) grows up a rambunctious tomboy, wishing she could be a knight, and when the fairy tale’s well-known curse comes true and the child slips into a 100-year sleep, a multi-chapter quest unfolds in her dreams.

There are a few amusingly chintzy special effects, but Breillat is more intent on sending her heroine across Jungian terrain. Anastasia voyages into the unknown to rescue her friend Peter (Kerian Mayan), who has been enchanted by the Snow Queen (Romane Portail) - although the real villain is puberty, which has turned the boy venomously cruel. At its best, “The Sleeping Beauty’’ reclaims fairy tales as a kind of oral folk REM state, chewing over anxieties about adulthood, behavior, sex, and belonging in potent symbolic form.

Anastasia’s adventures hang together loosely, like chapters of a dream. She penetrates the castle of the albino prince (Paul Vernet) and princess (Laurine David), is captured by brigands, befriends a gypsy girl (Luna Charpentier), and trudges across the tundra on a reindeer to take advice from a grandmotherly seeress (Maricha Lopoukhine). “The Sleeping Beauty’’ lets these sequences flow with a lovely haphazardness; there’s a putting-on-a-show vibe to the film that smooths its sharp edges.

Still, people could get hurt here, and they do. The final chapters of “The Sleeping Beauty,’’ after the now 16-year-old Anastasia (Julia Artamonov) has been woken by a callow modern-day prince (David Chausse) and been ushered into womanhood, show the dream and its power receding. The film strands the heroine in the 21st century, and the loss of innocence feels more obliquely powerful than any of Breillat’s earlier blows against the patriarchy. “I went alone into your world,’’ the girl tells her lover, as if the armor that protected her in childhood - her bravery and resourcefulness, the knowledge that a girl can do things a woman can’t - is now gone. If there’s a moral, it’s that happily ever after works only if you have your eyes closed.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com or followed on Twitter: @tyburr.

THE SLEEPING BEAUTY

Written and directed by:

Catherine Breillat

Starring: Carla Besnaïnou, Julia Artamonov, David Chausse

At: Brattle Theatre

Running time: 82 minutes

Unrated (as R: nudity, post-feminist pre-Raphaelite psychosexual hubba-hubba)

In French, with subtitles

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