“What you call happiness keeps me from living” — so says the preternaturally confident young heroine of Catherine Breillat’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” Anastasia disdains the dainty twinkly things — tutus, kimonos — that she’s expected to adore and prefers to see herself as Sir Vladimir, a knight.
One could argue that, in varying degrees, all of the iconoclastic French director’s films have dismantled femme-centric fairy tales. But in this, the second of a planned trilogy, she’s confronting burnished old folk tales head-on. Sly and playful, it’s a beauty.
The film at first feels more diffuse than her 2009 “Bluebeard,” an effect of its time-leaping structure and the muted palette that gives many scenes the look of faded storybook pages. But there’s nothing soft-focus about the fairy tale Breillat weaves — with her singular sensitivity to the sensuousness of fabrics, from the myriad buttons of a bygone virgin’s dress to the torn stockings of a contemporary Parisian.
The story begins with the cutting of an umbilical cord and gathers heft through an accrual of whimsical detail and frequently knife-sharp insight. An awareness of mortality shadows and propels Anastasia, who knows that she’ll fall into a hundred years’ sleep when she turns 16. Until then, she amasses an impressive collection of 20th-century alarm clocks.
As expected from the maker of “36 Fillette,” “Romance” and “Fat Girl,” Anastasia is not the kind of princess who settles for suspended animation while waiting for a kiss. Instead she wanders across the universe — and into “The Snow Queen,” Hans Christian Andersen’s story of separated soul mates in a world divided by evil. (Breillat flirts with stereotype when her protagonist befriends a Gypsy girl with an itch to kill.)
Played first by Carla Besnainou and then by Julia Artamonov, Anastasia avails herself of a ghost train, a carriage and a strong-backed doe as she crosses her dreamscape in pursuit of love. She’s a resourceful traveler, but whether in a fairy tale or not, that’s no guarantee of happily-ever-after.
“The Sleeping Beauty.” MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. At the Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood.