You will see the title Sleeping Beauty and automatically conjure up images of either the original fairy tale, the Tchaikovsky ballet, or the 1959 Disney film – most likely the latter. Indeed, this new film is like all incarnations of the story in that it’s about a young maiden who will at some point be put into a deep sleep. But to deal with this upfront, this is where the similarities end. Sleeping Beauty, which marks the directorial debut of Australian novelist Julia Leigh, belongs in an unclassifiable gray zone between erotica and pornography. Although it has the gratuitous nudity men prefer, it will not appeal to their appetite for graphic depictions of intercourse. Likewise, women may respond to the sensual intimacy, but they will surely be put off by the cold detachment with which the story is told.
I am, of course, speaking in general terms. Who am I to say what you personally will find sexually stimulating? For my money, the film is pretentious art – provocative and visually sumptuous but thematically impenetrable. It is, essentially, the embodiment of art for art’s sake, which states that the intrinsic value of art is completely separate from functions deemed edifying or moral. If you can accept the fact that this movie looks pretty but says absolutely nothing about its characters, its plot, or even its views on sexuality, then perhaps it’s worth going to see. You can study at depth the framing, the human form, the distinctive art direction, and especially the disturbing dreaminess of the bedroom set, where the title character lies helplessly in induced slumber.
The film stars Emily Browning as Lucy, a college student and a deep mystery. Her dialogue is sparse and we only get scraps of her personal life, but there’s just enough for us to formulate a rough outline: Her unseen mother is financially dependent and a violent alcoholic; she feels emotionally responsible, for reasons known only to her, for a teetering addict known only as Birdman (Ewen Leslie); she’s behind on her rent and doesn’t make enough working as both a café waitress, piling chairs onto tables after hours, and an office assistant, making endless copies and dealing with her stuffy boss. Her situation is obvious, but what motivates her is anyone’s guess. Her attitude towards sex, we will repeatedly observe, is curiously opaque. In an early scene at a swanky bar, for example, she sits by idly as two men flip a coin to determine who will sleep with her and when. Take note of the fact that one of them uses the singular form of the word “heads.”
To supplement her income, she takes a job with a madam named Clara (Rachael Blake), who initially puts her to work as a lingerie waitress, pouring wine at upscale dinner parties where the guests wear tuxes. Later on, at a secluded countryside estate, Lucy is “promoted” to the rank of sleeping beauty; she’s made to drink a powerful anesthesia brewed like tea, lie naked on a bed in an ornate bedroom, and remain unconscious as sexually frustrated elderly men have their way with her. The first, known only as Man 1 (Peter Carroll), compares at length his unfulfilled life with that of Ingeborg Bachmann’s story “The Thirtieth Year.” Man 2 (Chris Haywood) can only light a cigarette and explain how necessary Viagra is for him. Clara, who listens to their tales of woe, stipulates that there’s to be absolutely no penetration.
Leigh has a healthy interest in Browning’s nude form, and indeed, her beauty seems to have been lifted directly from a Goya painting: Snow white skin, hair that flows down to her shoulders, breasts that are humble but shapely, curvy hips that naturally extend from her slender waist. What bothers me is that this is applied to a character so complex that she’s completely unsolvable. Her maddeningly casual attitude towards sex, coupled with alarming passivity, allows for moments of unsettling objectification. Some are imposed, as when she’s instructed to paint her lips the same color as her labia. Others are self-induced, as when she proclaims, with just a hint of anger, that her vagina is not a temple. And consider two scenes in a lab, in which a medical student carefully inserts a plastic tube down her throat and into her esophagus.
What does any of this mean? Leigh is not the only one viewing things from a distance; she has written the characters to be just as emotionally walled off. If Sleeping Beauty is in fact making a thematic statement, it’s done in such a way that it’s undetectable. The film’s lack of purpose is only exacerbated by its awkward structure, in which Lucy’s everyday life and extracurricular activities are intercut, and its ending, which doesn’t feel like an ending at all but rather like the setup for something grander. The final scene, in which Lucy has her first understandable emotional reaction, involves a decision and an act that’s dramatically and logistically nonsensical. Here’s a film that spends more time getting us to think about what it’s trying to say and less time actually saying it.
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