Bright Lights Film Journal

Sleeping Beauties

The Strange Case of Angelica, dir. Manoel de Oliveira

Sleeping Beauty, dir. Catherine Breillat

On the face of it, the story of sleeping beauty should be a terrible subject for a film. What could be more static than a princess asleep for a hundred years? It’s the kind of premise only Andy Warhol could cope with, finding a loopy majesty inside its tedium. But of course that ignores the tension inherent in the story – what’s really going on with the frozen girl?  Is she sleeping, dreaming or dead?  Which in turn raises the problem of the prince: when you fall in love with someone who is asleep, are you attracted to her spirit, some ineffable essence in her being? Or are you skating on the edge between voyeurism and necrophilia?

The Strange Case of Angelica, Manoel de Oliveira’s parable about falling in love with a dead girl, is too well-mannered to pursue the question quite that far. Actually, his film is too restrained and stifled by good taste to do more than skim the surface of its premise, but at least the premise is an intriguing one: a man falls in love with the photograph of a woman he took at her deathbed.

Isaac (Ricardo Trêpa) is the photographer. He’s a Sephardi Jew, seemingly a refugee from somewhere, living alone in a small town in northern Portugal’s wine country. He reads poetry, listens to static on the radio, and takes pictures with his Leica. One rainy night, he is summoned to the home of the local gentry. Their daughter, Angelica (Pilar López de Ayala), has just died, and her mother would like a keepsake. When Isaac looks at her through his viewfinder, she opens her eyes and smiles. He jumps; no one else sees a thing. After he develops the pictures the same thing happens.  Angelica becomes an obsession; he starts hanging around her grave and she starts appearing to him as a flying black-and-white apparition in his dreams.

Those dream sequences have a touch of Méliès to them. Certainly there’s something fin-de-last-siècle about their combination of lo-fi special effects and coy sensuality. Angelica’s ghost wears an expression of pre-Raphaelite come-hitherness, to which Isaac responds with his best Young Werther. As a pair, they look like they should meet over a mist-fogged lake or wind-blasted moor. They aren’t the only part of the film that seems like it wandered in from the nineteenth century. Most of the other characters in Strange Case are pure types – the uppity maid, the rickety beggar, the nervous nun – but just when it seems that everyone in the movie is a refugee from the margins of a Victorian novel, a few walk-on boarders begin a conversation about anti-matter.

I hate to say it, but the strange mix of eras in The Strange Case of Angelica probably has something to do with Manoel de Oliveira’s age. One hundred and two years old, he began his career in the silent era and his lifespan coincides (almost) with the history of film. These facts always get brought up whenever he releases a new movie, usually to little profit, but here it has to be significant. For one thing, few other directors could have had a project on the backburner for sixty years, as is apparently the case with The Strange Case of Angelica. That long wait may explain some of the strangeness of the film’s setting, which seems perched between the 1950s (men’s hats, the Leica, antiquarian books) and the present (minivans). It also speaks to the conception of the film as a whole. Isaac, played by De Oliveira’s grandson, is a stand-in for the director. He’s in love with a photograph – as much with the girl in the picture as with photography in general, and by extension with the cinema as a photographic medium, an art form whose life is running out in tandem with his own.

A love story where the girl is a ghost and the ghost is cinema: if it worked, they’d screen it for Henri Langlois in heaven forever. But it doesn’t work: without any strong performances to anchor the action, the film is all mood – a mood captured in bare rooms, somber landscapes and long drives in the rain. Like poor, translucent Angelica, the whole thing is a little too wan, and too wet, to fall in love with.

Trust Catherine Breillat to give perversity its due. On the surface, her adaptations of Charles Perrault’s stories, first Bluebeard and now Sleeping Beauty, are extremely straight: period dress, dark woods, enchanted castles, beautiful girls. A sense of deep craftsmanship – present in the look of clothes, the sound of a harpsichord, and the perfect color balance of each shot – pervades both films. But underneath their exquisite surfaces, Bluebeard and Sleeping Beauty hum with a current of transgressive lust. Lust and love: in Bluebeard, the most fascinating element is the strange tenderness between the murderous giant and his child bride.

In a different key, Sleeping Beauty is also about the shock of sexuality, its long deferral and the sudden death of childhood. In adapting Perrault’s story, Breillat has made one crucial change: the princess, Anastasia, goes to sleep as a six-year old, and wakes up aged sixteen. Why the change? The fairy who gives her this gift, a countermeasure against the curse placed on the child at birth, explains that it is “because childhood lasts too long” and is boring anyway. So instead, Anastasia spends her hundred year sleep wandering around other fairy tales (mostly the Snow Queen) before waking up as an adolescent.

Anastasia (Carla Besnaïnou) begins the film as a tomboyish girl living a life of exquisite ease on a half-French half-Russian family estate that looks like it came out of Nabokov’s memoirs. She goes to sleep after pricking herself in the hand during a performance of what seems to be a French-language Mikado for kids. Her dream-world, which she enters after defeating an ogre at bowling, at first seems more prosaic than her real childhood. Dropped off by a phantom train at a cottage by a lonely railway crossing, she settles in with its inhabitants, a single mother and her teenage son. With her adoptive brother, Peter, she reads stories and explores the neighboring woods. Just hitting puberty, Peter is a perfect friend, solicitous and sweetly attentive – that is, until an ice crystal sent by the Snow Queen falls in his eye. He becomes instantly dissatisfied with his life and runs away. Anastasia runs off in pursuit. During her search, she penetrates a kingdom ruled by sweet-hungry albinos and is taken hostage by a band of gypsies led by an impetuous child queen; eventually, astride a harnessed deer, she makes it to furthest Lapland, where a shamanness tells her Peter’s whereabouts. Then, in an instant, she awakes as a teenager in the modern world (now played by Julia Artamonov), wearing a corset and living alone in a country estate.

The bulk of Sleeping Beauty takes place in Anastasia’s dreams, a fairly benign world by Breillat’s standard`s, although a few touches, like a knife stroking the neck of a deer every night so it learns to expect its fate, carry the charge of her darkest work. The final act is more troubling. Anastasia, suddenly awaking as an adolescent, is out of place in time and in her own body. As a child she was imperious and irresistible, in life and in her dream. She pursued Peter with an easy single-mindedness, as if he was a toy she had lost. In the present, she’s courted by Johan, his grandson and double. Confronted by adult desire, she’s stranded, almost helpless, and her initiation into sex is brutal, physically and as an assault on her illusions.

What happens in the end is an open question. Anastasia leaves the estate alone and apparently pregnant. Johan searches for her.  When he finally finds her only a few months have passed, but her clothes and the look on her face says that it might as well have been a few decades.  Breillat’s storytelling is so swift and her editing so crisp that it can be easy to be left behind. An acute pictorial intelligence underpins the dream-logic of her narratives.  She’s the rare director who can really frame an image and then reel them off like she was dealing a deck of tarot cards, so that a pierced and bleeding palm at the beginning leads to a torn stocking at the end as surely as day follows night.