Rewriting Fairy Tales, Revisiting Female Identity: An Interview with Catherine Breillat
by Maria Garcia
Catherine Breillat (photo by Robin Holland)
In Catherine Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty, the good fairies prepare Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou), the six-year-old princess, for her century-long repose by explaining that she will awaken at the age of sixteen. Impatient to escape girlhood, Anastasia asks the fairies for adventuresome dreams. Like her counterparts in Breillat’s other films about girls—Bluebeard (2009), Fat Girl (2001), 36 Fillette (1988) and Une Vraie Jeune Fille (1976)—the princess imagines her individuation, and then moves consciously and methodically in the direction of her desire. That heroic journey, embarked upon in myth by medieval knights and at the movies by airborne superheroes, is undertaken in Breillat’s movies by young women armed with their wits. Anastasia departs in pink toe shoes and a silk kimono.
Whether she’s wrapping nubile girls in blue jeans, or chemise dresses and whalebone, as she does in The Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard—or women in nothing at all, as in Romance (1999) and Anatomy of Hell (2004)—Breillat consistently reimagines the much-celebrated rites of passage often reserved, in literature and cinema, for boys. Her protagonists take to the road and slay the dragons of girlhood confinement. They find a guy, relinquish their virginity, and liberate themselves from the superannuated chivalric traditions for honoring women. Their reward is that they give birth to themselves, but that hard-won prize is tenuous; as Breillat’s oeuvre suggests, the battle for identity continues into adolescence and adulthood. In The Sleeping Beauty, Peter (Kérian Mayan), Anastasia’s first love, abandons her, but she expects him to return when she awakens from her somnolence. Instead, there’s Johan (David Chausse), Peter’s grandson, another fickle boy whose betrayal sends Anastasia alone into the world to invent a new identity.
The Sleeping Beauty marks the second of Breillat’s trilogy of fairy tales, which began with Bluebeard (2009). Both are adapted from Charles Perrault’s The Complete Fairy Tales. Her third adaptation will be Beauty and the Beast. While Perrault provides the framework for The Sleeping Beauty, the filmmaker borrows liberally from Hans Christian Andersen’s story, “The Snow Queen,” as well as from the real-life story of Anastasia, the tsarina who was killed in 1918. By many accounts, Anastasia was a mischievous girl; for half a century she was renowned as a romantic figure rumored to have survived the Bolshevik massacre of the Russian royal family. Perhaps it is the latter quality, Anastasia’s “afterlife,” which inspired Breillat to name her character for the princess. Breillat’s Anastasia climbs trees, declares herself a knight, and ignores reprimands from servants and her parents. After she “dies,” she boards a train, which takes her to a cottage in the woods. There she is welcomed by the railroad gatekeeper (Anne-Lise Kedves) and her son Peter, and for a while lives like an ordinary girl.
Bluebeard's wives from Bluebeard, the first of Breillat's fairy tale trilogy
During a snowstorm, the gatekeeper recounts the legend of the Snow Queen, which awakens Peter’s adolescent desires. Soon, the icy beauty appears, and the boy ventures out into the brumous night to board her sled, beginning his own painful journey to adulthood. Anastasia is heartbroken, and decides she must find Peter and release him from the spell of the Snow Queen. She travels across continents, and is aided by a royal couple, a Romany girl, and a seer. Her illusions about Peter’s entrapment end in Lapland when the seer (Moana Ferre) tells her he is happy living with the Snow Queen. Then the old woman chants a tale of dragons that swallow their tails, the uroboros, which Carl Jung wrote “devours, fertilizes, begets, and slays itself and brings itself to life again.” The beasts, emblazoned on a cup from which the fortuneteller drinks, represent the eternal cycle of life, death, and rebirth, and signals the last phase of Anastasia’s quest. The seer can give her nothing; she tells the princess she possesses all the powers required to complete her journey.
The Sleeping Beauty may, at first glance, appear to be “Breillat Lite.” It is about a girl barely beyond the age of tantrums and ballet recitals, a personality still unformed, yet the French writer-director’s signature preoccupations surface in every aspect of the mise-en-scène. When the lonely princess is forced to share her coach with a Romany girl (Luna Charpentier), after being set upon by her band of thieves, she realizes that girlhood need not be a long imprisonment. Entering the cocoon of sensuality that, in Breillat’s eyes, is a perfectly natural aspect of feminine friendships, Anastasia becomes entranced by the Romany girl, and reexamines her own identity. The girl survives Anastasia’s century-long sleep to become a beautiful woman (Rhizlaine El Cohen), and, in her arms, the princess has her first sexual awakening.
Slowly but expertly, in these scenes and throughout the film, Breillat dispenses with Prince Charming and the popular version of the fairy tale. Anastasia’s deflowering lacks the eroticism of her sex with the Romany girl and, afterward, Johan abandons her. At the end of the film, when he asks Anastasia if she still loves him as before, she says she does, but now it’s “after,” the “after” of her solitary reentry into an utterly different world than the one of her dreams. In the scheme of things, Breillat suggests, the Romany woman’s love is liberating, while Johan’s is limiting, but to interpret this literally is to mistake the filmmaker’s intent. In women’s encounters with men, with the “Other,” their brothers, fathers, and male lovers, they learn about the ways of the world, as Anastasia does through Peter and Johan. In their relationships with other women, they delve into their own nature.
Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) and her doe
Anastasia, who rides a doe instead of the requisite beast of mythical heroes, is, for much of the movie, in a pink or furry panoply. Both costume design and production design in The Sleeping Beauty take inspiration from Anastasia’s fairy-tale status and from Breillat’s desire to overturn male iconography. Charming interiors, fairy-tale castles, and magical transport are all there, but François-Renaud Labarthe, who was Breillat’s designer on The Last Mistress and Fat Girl, also underscores quotidian objects associated with the fairy tale to convey this princess’ unique stature. The progression of beds, for instance, from the young Anastasia’s confining, eighteenth-century cabinet bed, to the less restricting four poster in which she awakens, to the modest cot in the final scenes, transforms an erotic object of the fairy tale into one that is simply a series of scaffolds upon which Anastasia is reborn.
Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty may be a tap on the shoulder for the parents of girls, as much as it is a story for and about girls and the women they become, although it is certainly not “family entertainment.” Breillat sets out to overturn the male fantasy that forms the subtext of nearly all the romantic fairy tales upon which young girls are weaned—that men awaken the virgin to her sexuality and, by extension, to her identity. That should not be mistaken for feminist diatribe, a criticism often leveled at Breillat. This film, unlike the fairy tale, is a celebration of women who often begin their quest for identity in pink-ribboned ballet slippers.
We spoke with Breillat in April via telephone from her home in Paris. Thank you to Robert Gray for providing simultaneous translation. The Sleeping Beauty will open in New York on July 8th and in Los Angeles on July 29th, with a national theatrical release to follow.—Maria Garcia
Cineaste: Anastasia in The Sleeping Beauty immediately reminded me of the young protagonist in A Ma Soeur! (2001), as well as those of 36 Fillette and Bluebeard. She’s so impatient. Could you talk about this quality in your young protagonists?
Catherine Breillat: Impatient about what?
Cineaste: I think about wanting to grow up.
Breillat: You’re absolutely right. Personally, I felt it was unbearable to be a young girl—and then all the boredom of adolescence that followed. Isn’t that true?
Cineaste. Yes, and I think that your Sleeping Beauty is a kind of history of girlhood. We float through that time wishing we were older or married or a mother, and then almost abruptly we are older. Why is this experience still so real for you?
Breillat: In my experience, young girls never want to be married. Their first desire is to be. It is only in The Sleeping Beauty that the protagonist becomes pregnant, but the baby is hers alone. In fact, it is a baby she makes herself. In the other films, the girls who want to make this jump into adulthood do so on their own.
Something I noticed recently among young girls influenced me. There is a tendency to have children when these girls are far too young to look after them, and too young for the father to be involved. It is a recent development in France. A lot of girls want their mothers to play a dual role. They want to remain in the same relationship with their mother, but also have her be a grandmother to their baby. That is not the case with Anastasia’s baby, however, because having remained asleep in the preceding century, Anastasia does not have a mother. I am not sure whether this is the case in the U.S. but it is a phenomenon that has become widespread. Girls don’t have abortions but instead keep their babies, even though they are only fourteen or sixteen.
Cineaste: In the U.S., there are class differences. Affluent girls get pregnant later than less affluent girls do. Perhaps the girl who keeps her baby feels the child will define her.
Breillat: I think you are right. It is easy when you are young to say: “I have a baby and I have someone. I have accomplished something.” Certainly, that was the case with my daughter. I would like to get back to the characters in 36 Fillette and À Ma Soeur! The reason I am obsessed by young girls is that they are individuals who exist but also do not yet exist. They are afraid, and they’re strong and weak at the same time. They confront life violently. They are weak because they do not know who they are going to become.
Cineaste: Can we talk about the relationship of Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou/Julia Artamonov) to Peter (Kerian Mayan)? He’s her nominal brother and her first love. He’s also a beast, and the “Other,” and Anastasia goes on this defining quest to find him.
Breillat: He is a brother, her first lover, and her first disappointment. The scene where they are together in bed, you have a sense of them as a couple in the midst of divorce. He is at a loss to know what to do. He is the first man who will betray her.
Cineaste: In the film, this quest for Peter is Anastasia’s dream. Are you suggesting that rather than our parents or our environment, our childhood dreams are the defining experience of our lives?
Breillat: That first shot of Anastasia in bed with Peter as a very young girl is a totally asexual scene. It’s funny, but I thought of old American movies where you see a couple in their bedroom, separated in twin beds, wearing pajamas—scenes which are very asexual. This little girl does not want to be a boy necessarily, but she wants to be fearless. It is the tomboy side of her. She is looking for adventure without fear, and the only one who protects her in this endeavor is Peter, although not for long. I have always liked the courage of bold, young girls, and it is always the youngest girl in the family who is the boldest. No doubt this is true because I had an older sister and I had to be bolder than she was.
Cineaste: And how wonderful that in being an artist, you can change what happened in those sibling relationships and imagine them differently.
Breillat: That’s a huge advantage in being an artist, and in being a filmmaker in particular because it allows you to visualize. We all experience the same thing as individuals and that is why fiction can exist. It is also why in cinema we recognize ourselves or see ourselves onscreen. Even I have seen myself on the screen.
Breillat: I recognized myself in the first film that I saw when I was twelve years old, and which aroused my determination to be a filmmaker, Bergman’s Sawdust and Tinsel. I've always said that Harriet Andersson was my “fictional body.” All my films follow from that character, because she is me.
Cineaste: The gypsy girl is the only character who survives 100 years of Anastasia’s sleep. I was very surprised when she appeared again after Anastasia wakes up.
Breillat: The fear and the only danger for very young girls is male desire. That’s not the case with Anastasia; she’s not afraid, especially in her relationship to the Romany girl, which is amorous. The girl tells Anastasia that other girls don’t count in such relationships. Certainly, the gypsy girl is a frightening figure but Anastasia is not frightened of her. Nevertheless, she dominates Anastasia.
At the same time, the Roma in the film represent freedom. They have not changed in the last century. The clothes they wear are still the same. If you find old Romany clothes, they are identical to the ones made for the film.
The Romany girl is in love with Anastasia. She gives Anastasia her doe, and everything, in fact. I was very happy to be able to present the Roma onscreen, especially their passion for life. They have been living among the French for so long. I am not sure if it has been covered in the American press but they have been persecuted in France, and now the government has been taking measures to try to expel them. There have been demonstrations recently to stop the expulsions. I was glad to allow them to speak for themselves and to illustrate their joie de vivre.
Cineaste: The reference to the Roma in the film made me think of my favorite violin concerto by the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, Violin Concerto No. 3. I always find its “gypsy” theme surprising given that Saint-Saëns was French. The piece was written for Pablo de Sarasate, a passionate Spanish violinist, and perhaps refers to those themes in flamenco.
Breillat: In the film, the Roma dance and sing, and of course they speak in Romani. I had absolutely no idea what they were saying.
Cineaste: Like flamenco, it does not matter. The meaning comes through.
Breillat: Yes, I have always loved flamenco music. And even more the flamenco attitude. Flamenco is desire. I have always said that the cinema is like flamenco, like a bullfight, a corrida. The main character in The Last Mistress (2007), played by Asia Argento, is a Spanish gypsy with flamenco in her blood.
Cineaste: “The Snow Queen” is a very frightening fairy tale, and of course it is a very frightening tale for boys. Why did you decide to include it in the script?
Breillat: The story of the Snow Queen is a story of an initiation, a passage from childhood to adulthood, and in this case it is the boy, Peter, who is in love with Anastasia and represents this passage in her life, too, from young girl to womanhood. Of course, he immediately drops her afterwards; it’s like Brief Crossing (2001).
Cineaste: So many fairy tales are about girls and women, or directed at girls and women. Now you are devoting your time to them. Would you discuss your reasons?
Breillat: Fairy tales are the origins of our childhood. At the same time, they are projections into the unknown. As children, they allow us to voyage to the unknown. That’s what they were for me when I was growing up. I think that fairy tales interest boys, but certainly it is true that the tale of “Sleeping Beauty” does not. When I chose to make this film, I wanted to avoid this trap, which is why I turned Anastasia into a tomboy. At screenings, when little boys saw the film, they were absolutely fascinated with her character. If we had not ended the film on the relationship between Anastasia and Johan (David Chausse), then it could be a film for children.
Cineaste: I think that’s true, especially because of that wonderful train which takes Anastasia on her adventure. Did you find it or have to make it?
Breillat: I do not make things I can find. As soon as you start to make a film, you are lucky, and that was the case with the railroad. I would never have had the budget to reconstruct it. I found it, along with the abandoned ship, with the tree growing in it on the Seine. It would have cost a fortune to actually build that set. It was right there. [Breillat here refers to the sequence near the beginning of the film in which Anastasia is walking toward the train. The river is in the background.]
When you are making films with no money, you have to be opportunistic. In Parfait Amour (1996), for example, I wanted scenes in the mountains and also scenes with fog. I decided it was simple to get the fog. It was lower down in the valley, and there it was. If I wanted to shoot that with special effects, it would cost four million dollars. So, in a film, you cannot have preconceptions. You can stick to what you have written in the script, but you must be open to change and open to inspiration. Of course, I have certain ideas but I take what nature has to offer me. In Brief Crossing, for the last shot when they leave the ship, it was raining cats and dogs, but that was not in the script. The storm was magnificent, though, so we shot it. The problem was we had not brought any raincoats with us; that’s why we had to make the shot a plan-séquence, a single long take.
Cineaste: Where is the train you used in Sleeping Beauty?
Breillat: The train is on the outskirts of Paris, and was once used for transportation, but nowadays the rides are what you can take your children on. It was actually built by an association or a club, people who are passionate about railroads and who restore them. When you are making a film, you meet so many people, including people with these passions.
Cineaste: There is a wonderful feeling of fairy tale and magic about that train. It’s a very important to the mise-en-scène of the film, isn’t it?
Breillat: Yes, it is quite important. I was so lucky to find it; had I not found it, I would have had to use something else to take its place. I am sure a miracle would have occurred and I would have found something to replace it.
Cineaste: You said during a public screening of The Sleeping Beauty that La Belle et La Bête will be your next film. Jean Cocteau’s film is iconic. In your screenplay and in imagining how you will direct your film, how will you deal with the weight of the original?
Breillat: Yes, I want to make a trilogy of fairy tales, and this film will be produced by ARTE. The chairman of ARTE announced the film at the Cinémathèque in Paris. We have not signed the deal, but he’s announced publicly that he will make it. To me, Cocteau’s film is a masterpiece. Obviously, I cannot do the same thing. For me, the man isn’t really a beast, but he is rather what the woman is afraid of. When Beauty is no longer afraid of him, her gaze will transfigure him. He will not be a beast in the film. He will not have the face of the beast. When her gaze transfigures him, he will become in her eyes a Prince Charming like men do when we fall in love with them. Men become unique and marvelous when we are in love with them. Our gaze changes them, even if they do not always necessarily stay that way.
Cineaste: I want to take your train back to my childhood dreams. It seems to travel both ways.
Breillat: Yes, you are absolutely right. If only the trains can take us back to our forties or into childhood, the world of Alice in Wonderland. I am very touched by what you said. I hope the audience will take the train of the film.