Acclaimed Australian novelist Julia Leigh makes her directorial debut with Sleeping Beauty, a rich mix of whimsical fairytale and hard-hitting reality which is unlike anything you will see this year. Charting the story of a young student who finds herself sucked into a world of erotic fantasy and prostitution, Sleeping Beauty takes an interesting route down what may seem like a well-trodden path. Inspired by the tale of King David and novellas by Yasunari Kawaboto and Gabriel Garcia Marques, Julia Leigh delves into the underground network of the women who sell themselves and the men who hire their services.
One such girl is Lucy (Emily Browning), an impulsive and inscrutable student whose story poses many questions but provides few answers. She has a job but does not pay her rent; she hangs around at university but never seems to study. Meanwhile, she cultivates a mysterious relationship with the seemingly agoraphobic and substance-dependent Birdmann (Ewen Leslie). After responding to an advert for a ‘silver service waitress’ in her student paper, Lucy is propelled into a secret world where those with a big enough bank balance will find their every whim catered for. In a mansion in the middle of a wood, Lucy begins to work as a ‘sleeping beauty’, allowing herself to fall into a deep, drug induced sleep, leaving her unresponsive body as a plaything for paying clients.
Initially, Lucy is confident, defiant and always in control. When asked to strip at her ‘audition’, she rolls her eyes theatrically as her potential employers scrutinise her body. In the ‘lipstick’ scene that follows she makes an audacious choice, opting for a lurid neon fuchsia, boldly mocking the attempts of others to commodify her body. Slowly, however, this resolve seems to ebb away. By the time she enters the Sleeping Beauty chamber, Lucy is overcome by what Leigh dubs a “radical passivity”. And while the rules of the house specify that she is not to be penetrated, the mental torture of not knowing what happens to her sleeping body takes more of a toll than physical abuse ever could.
One thing that remains unclear throughout is Lucy’s motivations. A completely unknown quantity, her character remains opaque from beginning to end. The audience is forced to piece together gestures and suggestions to come to their own conclusions. A phone call with her alcoholic mother early on implies that Lucy might be giving her earnings away, while scenes in the bar suggest she is might well be doing it just to prove she can. The time she spends with close friend the Birdmann, despite providing little real insight, allows moments of tenderness to shine through the cracks. Later, a flippant chat-up line from a stranger in a crowded bar manages to encapsulate Lucy’s life better than she could herself. “Some people fake their deaths,” he says. “I’m faking my life.” Considering Lucy is never provided an opportunity to truly connect with the audience, Julia Leigh runs the risk here of being a little reductive, of encouraging the audience to view Lucy as her paying clients do.
The main point of contention surrounding Sleeping Beauty seems to be whether or not the film constitutes exploitation. And indeed, the question it seems to be posing is this: to what extent does being complicit in our own exploitation absolve our abusers of responsibility? The debate is further fuelled by the complicity the audience feels with Lucy’s clients and employers. From the very first scene, Sleeping Beauty shows itself to be an exercise in voyeurism. A seemingly endless initial take shows Lucy taking part in a university science experiment; she gags as a tube is forced down her throat and left there. With what Leigh names “the observing camera… the tender, steady witness” we passively observe Lucy’s suffering, powerless to intervene. Later, as her unconscious body in the chamber flops around like a rag doll, impassive and unfeeling, again we can do nothing but watch.
Her three visitors paint an interesting portrait of the fallen, emasculated older male. The first client is tender, regarding her body with awe and admiration. The second, meanwhile, is disturbingly sadistic. In a scene that is truly harrowing to watch, he takes out his own frustrations on her unresponsive body. The third is bumbling and foolish, dropping her on the floor without the strength to pick her back up.
A few performances particularly stand out as in keeping with the film’s understated and nuanced style. Emily Browning does a fantastic job in an extremely challenging role, retaining a poise and purity throughout, despite the abuse to which she is subjected. Rachael Blake gives an intriguing portrayal of the mansion’s apparent ice-maiden Clara, hinting at something unspoken below the surface. Finally, Ewen Lewis provides a brilliant deadpan delivery in the role of Birdmann, the endearing wastrel confined to a small and surreal life.
The cinematography is striking, with muted fleshy and pastel tones dominating the sets and wardrobe. The music is equally minimal, with silence providing the eerie soundtrack to many of the films more challenging scenes. Much like Lucy herself, not much is given away as Leigh provokes the audience to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions.
However, there are a few moments in which Leigh’s direction falters. The scene in which the first client tells a protracted anecdote in the Chamber is overlong, somewhat self-serving and pretentious, and adds little to the film. Finally, the choice of the English upper classes as fairytale villains seemed a little too obvious, harking back to old clichés of the hidden perversions of the old aristocracy.
Sleeping Beauty explores a fascinating concept and can boast an almost flawless cinematographic execution. However, while the fantastical elements are undoubtedly beautiful – the velvet cape, the old house in the deep, dark wood – they seem to rob the film of its potential for making a real statement. These moments may provide the film with its dream-like surreal quality, but they also set it apart from reality to such an extent that the end product seems a little hollow, almost irrelevant. While I didn’t go expecting another Lilya 4ever, I left feeling disappointed upon leaving that I didn’t feel much at all.
Sleeping Beauty is out in cinemas on 14th October 2011.