SLEEPING BEAUTY (18): On General Release Friday 14th October
There are no spinning wheels and no handsome princes in first time film-maker Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, a sumptuously filmed art house style film about erotic obsession. Emily Browning plays Lucy, a student who pays her bills by working a variety of small jobs – everything from waitressing to willing lab rat.
The latter forms the film’s grotesque opening scene in which Lucy inserts a tube directly down her throat, the stark clinical white laboratory atmosphere punctuated by her occasional gags. She also dabbles in prostitution, something which leads to her answering an advert for silver service waitressing at private dinner parties wearing almost nothing.
Then something odd happens. She meets Clara, a high-class madam who runs a peculiar kind of house of ill repute. All Lucy has to do drink a sleeping draft, ritualistically prepared like an aristocratic tea party by Clara and lie in a double-bed while clients do whatever they please with her unconscious body – everything bar penetration which is strictly prohibited.
With the extra money, Lucy moves out of the apartment she shares with two objectionable housemates into more spacious accommodation but becomes increasingly curious about just what those men do to her while she sleeps. She has little other human contact apart from with Birdmann, a drug addict and recluse who seems to be her only real friend.
Emily Browning gives a hypnotic performance as Lucy which is a real surprise following her disastrous last film Sucker Punch. There’s a studied blankness and a faraway look in her eyes, an existential ennui which is utterly beguiling. It’s aided by the cinematography – all languid long shots and gilded framing – it’s got more in common with European art-house of the 70s than contemporary Australian cinema. There’s also something quite odd about the dialogue, a sort of deliberately stilted phrasing which makes already creepy scenes even more unsettling.
It’s a film which offers many possible interpretations. Money seems to be the obvious motivator for Lucy but she doesn’t live extravagantly, so that’s not a very satisfying reason. Does Lucy enjoy what she is doing on some level? Or is what she’s doing a way of exerting a kind of control over her life in the same way that self-abuse helps to ground a person?
It’s certainly very unkind to the male form. Her clients’ bodies are ravaged with old age – sagging flesh and sallow skin contrast dramatically with Lucy’s flawless porcelain complexion. Each reacts in their own way – one angrily spits insults at her frustrated at his lost virility, while others see her as a replacement companion or daughter.
And as ethically wrong as it might be to pay to spend a night with an unconscious girl, these scenes evoke a sort of pathetic pity more than anything else – Clara’s warning against penetration is completely unnecessary – these chaps couldn’t get it up if they tried. – is this a comment on how male power is inherently linked to their sexual fortitude which wanes with age?
Leigh’s film is beautifully framed and shot and Browning gives a bravura performance but it’s a film that will divide opinion in the same way that The Tree Of Life did a few weeks earlier. Its resistance to interpretation will frustrate many viewers who will simply dismiss it as pretentious tosh but it’s undeniably provocative and thoughtful cinema.