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Sleeping Beauty [official site / Facebook] is a surreal film about a young woman's descent into an erotic underworld. It has been endorsed by Jane Campion, a filmmaker who has made female sexuality her thesis statement. This information alone is probably enough to alienate certain camps, but the intrepid and curious will find much to savor in Australian writer / director Julia Leigh's debut feature, a cinematic striptease that is Buñuel-lite and Breillat-done-right.
With the stiffness of a Victorian femme-hysterique and the froth of a liberated Modern Woman, 23-year-old Aussie Emily Browning plays Lucy, a college-aged woman who spends her extra-curricular hours working a sterile office job where all she ever seems to do is make photocopies. In the film's first scene, set in an all-white laboratory, Lucy participates in the sort of dubious paid survey you'd find posted on Craigslist. A dapper young medical student has Lucy swallow a long tube that fills with air pressure. As this abstruse apparatus is fed down her throat, Lucy gags but remains calm and poised, preserving an emotional ambivalence on her face. Right from the get-go, Julia Leigh's film establishes the kind of degrading (albeit chic) wringer through which Lucy will be wrung.
Strapped for cash and unable to pay her rent, Lucy responds to a classified ad in the student paper. Over the phone, she describes herself as "slim" and "pert." In an anonymous, lavishly decorated room, she meets with Clara (Rachael Blake). We understand that Lucy will become some sort of prostitute. Details are elided, but Clara assures Lucy that her vagina will not be penetrated. "My vagina is not a temple," Lucy says. Leigh's screenplay is filled with these kinds of quippy epigrams that recall the dialogue of Lars von Trier, as when Justine of Melancholia (2011) says "The Earth is evil, we don’t need to grieve for it," or She in Antichrist (2009) tells her husband, "Nature is Satan's church." I especially like when Lucy tells her roommate, "There's no virtue in being born." No doubt, both Leigh and Browning know the work of Lars von Trier, as they eagerly plumb the bottomless depths of female sexuality and its darkness. Clara tells Lucy that there will be "heavy penalties" for any breaches of trust. This is one of many red herrings hatched by Leigh. We think the film could go one way, that the drama of Sleeping Beauty could be something about these mysterious "penalties," but it always goes the other way. Lucy is no heart-of-gold hooker. She's not even conscious during her assignments. Clara puts her to sleep with a nondescript potion so that Lucy slumbers while a queue of wealthy, geriatric men essentially do whatever they want to her (except penetrate). Lucy grows increasingly curious about what goes on while she sleeps, and this curiosity is what engenders the film's dramatic payoff. Like Catherine Breillat's Fat Girl (2001), Sleeping Beauty takes on an abrupt shift of tone in its final moments. Always willing to be dosed with libations she can't identify, Lucy takes drugs from a friend, and her world changes.
For her first day on the job, Lucy stands scantly clad for a dinner party of old, rich guys. As her co-cavorters serve wine and caviar, a cavalcade of contortioned naked bodies surrounds the men. Lucy is not prepared for the sadist maneuvers her clients will employ. This scene's orgiastic politics brings to mind Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), another film about psychosexual netherworlds. Throughout Sleeping Beauty, Leigh will continue to invoke the master's sense of form in her clinical, starkly realized mise-en-scène, recalling the quiet architecture in the last sequence of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Perfectionist symmetry informs each shot, as crisp and tightly made as a hotel bed. Every frame contains the inhuman cleanliness of a hospital, or the burlesque kitsch of a life-sized dollhouse of the depraved. Leigh's austere aesthetic affords suffocating thematic nihilism, a rejection of traditional hermeneutic codes that is hard to swallow, so to speak. Yet unlike Steve McQueen's Shame, another 2011 release about sad sex, these blank narrative spaces brim with titillating question marks rather than the broad strokes of browbeating moralism.
Lucy also has an oblique relationship with a handsome guy she calls Birdman (Ewen Leslie), a depressed alcoholic in whom she appears to find her only pleasure. In one of the film's most farcical moments, she brings him a bottle of vodka and pours it over his cereal. In the grand scheme of Sleeping Beauty, it's unclear what this all means, but such a scene elevates the film to the level of curious oddity. Julia Leigh has a sense of humor, and what a relief for a film whose challenges could easily be construed as emptiness; hers is a Beauty full of ideas.
On the surface, Leigh's film has little to do with Charles Perrault's late-17th-century fairytale "La Belle au bois dormant". But this is a kind of postmodern fairytale iteration. Browning as the titular belle de jour possesses a certain idealism, and even an ignorance, that is awakened in the film's last act. Like its folkloric forebear, Sleeping Beauty toys with the lore of popular mythology. Here it is an unstable, antiseptic view of sex in an age where detachment and irony are the fashion, and visceral human connection is paltry and even derided. And like Perrault's tale, there is a kind of awakening-by-kiss in this film, though it is something quite unorthodox and uneasy.
Leigh is not the least bit shy about making the human body the subject of her uncanny gaze. Often we see the wan Emily Browning completely naked. As a scavenger of sick cinema, little these days seems to shock me, but I was, in fact, shocked when I saw Browning's barely nubile flesh get plucked by her carnivorous clients. For a film that is so coy about its ideas—enough to blue-ball even the hardiest minimalist—Leigh is not the least bit coy in her expression. Unheard of in most American films, there's a lot of deeply unsexy male nudity here. You have to applaud any film willing to show sex for what it really is.
For a young actress, Browning displays uncommon derring-do. She maintains her icy indifference and whitewashed poker face through every shot—she's in nearly all of them—and Leigh does not simply degrade her for degradation's sake: at all times, Lucy is a woman in control of her own destiny. Like the misunderstood heroines of von Trier and Dreyer, she has the power. She relinquishes that power in the form of sex, but it is sex for which she need not be conscious. This aspect of Sleeping Beauty is difficult to metabolize, as the film seems to have trouble metabolizing its own fetishes. It's tough to talk about a film like Sleeping Beauty, which insists on Ambiguity in favor of easy exposition. But this is the right kind of Ambiguity. Rather than a cover-up for inane, undercooked ideas—or lack thereof—it fashions the film a most tantalizing mystery, one that lingers beyond the end credits, even if I don't know exactly what it is that's haunting me. Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.