Novelist Julia Leigh makes her filmmaking debut with Sleeping Beauty, a film that is destined to be loved and hated in equal measure.
Sleeping Beauty marks novelist Julia Leigh’s debut as director with a film that successfully manages to perversely titillate and challenge in equal measure. The story centres around Lucy, a university student who carries out a number of menial jobs to pay her way. She happens across a work offer for silver service waitressing and gets sucked into a secreted world of erotic desire, submission and voyeurism. Writer-director Leigh remains disconcertingly vague in her depiction of both this sexually charged backwater and the character of Lucy herself. That she willingly submits herself to degradation and sexual exploitation is an immersive conceit, challenging the viewer to question one’s own voyeuristic tendencies and the motivational drive behind those complicit in their own exploitation and those gaining gratification from it.
Leigh’s introduction to Lucy is immediate and absolute. She has submitted herself to medical research and we see her receiving money in return for enduring a rather unpleasant experiment. This sale of services is taken further. Although it is never shown that she receives financial compensation for selling sex, her casual reaction to the advances of men at an upmarket bar and her willingness to submit to their sexual whims suggests it is more a job than a hobby. Indeed, her friendship with an alcoholic named Birdman seems more the aftermath of a long-running relationship probably based on escort services. Although it becomes clear Birdman and Lucy don’t sleep together, she is happy to take her clothes off at his request. Lucy is therefore a sort of empty vessel – a female body available to carry out a number of tasks from photocopying and cleaning tables to stripping and fellatio. Leigh’s unwillingness to delve too deeply into Lucy’s back-story keeps the character at arms length but it appears her passive, disconnected approach to life is somehow enriched by a perverse interest in being exploited.
Leigh’s unwillingness to delve too deeply into Lucy’s back-story keeps the character at arms length but it appears her passive, disconnected approach to life is somehow enriched by a perverse interest in being exploited.
Yet, while Leigh uses stylistic touches to mimic Lucy’s disconnected relationship with the world around her in the way she allows us to view her through the camera’s lens (long takes, a lack of close-ups, the almost total omission of Lucy’s interaction with anybody not exploiting her services), the director’s challenge to the audience becomes more irritating than engaging. Indeed, the entire film is made up of riddles or conversations that have a beginning without a conclusion. We are consequently left to put together the pieces ourselves which is an admirable trait but falls down because we only see the surface of Lucy (perhaps none more conclusive that the sight of her naked body). She is commodified and we as an audience are left to view her as such.
However, while it is a drawback, this is also the film’s most interesting proposition. Leigh’s distant camera and long, uncluttered and uncut sequences leave the audience as much voyeur as the old men admiring Lucy’s body. The first simply caresses her, cherishing her body, the second is a sadist who taunts the sleeping girl, the third is clumsy and uncaring as he picks her up and drops her back on the bed. Leigh presents this without cutting, her camera further enough away to suggest we are not party to the actions of the individuals but we are, in our willingness to view what is occurring, part of the exploitation. Is it a sense of power over the subject? Is it a sense of erotic gratification? Both, none, something else – that is Leigh’s question. What adds to the curiosity is Lucy’s role and her own sense of gratification through exploitation of her femininity.
Emily Browning, who made a name for herself as a child star in films such as Darkness Falls, Ghost Ship and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, is now destined to be a household name given her role as Lucy in Sleeping Beauty arriving so soon after Sucker Punch. She depicts Lucy’s passivity with cold, distant and forlorn expressions, her face rarely breaking from frown to smile. Leigh provides us little to sympathise with so Browning is left to effectively convey a sense of steely defiance that represents a woman who is determined to do it her own way. She is only a victim of her own doing but her emotions rarely surface. When they do, Browning is terrifically natural – a few tears appear when she discovers that Birdman has taken a fatal overdose, while a scene in which she sees a lone female hitchhiker, perhaps a frightening glimpse of a solitary future, forces her to throw up.
Perhaps most damning of her own personal demons is when she asks an old acquaintance to marry her and he refuses saying she already had her chance. It is one of the few moments Leigh allows us an inkling to Lucy’s past, one in which she obviously made conscious decisions that led her to where she is today. It isn’t clear, like a lot of the writer-director’s cryptic conversations and visual cues, whether Lucy is joking, being serious or trying to provoke. If she is trying to get a reaction from her ex-boyfriend it would certainly be in keeping with her nihilistic disposition, one that sees her gain greatest happiness, it would appear, when enjoying mind-altering drugs as seen at various points in the film.
Julia Leigh’s powerful film is a distinctive, viscerally demanding and intimately engaging piece of cinema but it will mesmerise as much as it will infuriate.
Sleeping Beauty will mesmerise as much as it will infuriate. Writer-director Julia Leigh’s powerful film is a distinctive, viscerally demanding and intimately engaging piece of cinema. While it retains a frigid distance from its protagonist, Emily Browning should be commended for her courage to take on a role that demands she be naked for much of it, as well as her ability to realise Lucy’s determined strength in the face of total disenchantment. That it reminded me of David Cronenberg’s obsession with the human body, David Lynch’s mystifying character construction, and the quasi-religious sexual rituals of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, can only be a good thing. Memorable and challenging, Sleeping Beauty is a unique experience that is destined to be loved and hated in equal measure.