Film Reviews

Sleeping Beauty

Published June 29, 2011

True to its title, Sleeping Beauty is a fairy tale, as bleak and perverse as something by the Brothers Grimm – if you can imagine the Grimms writing about suburban Melbourne. Lucy (Emily Browning) is a university student studying mathematics. She supports herself with part-time jobs, as a waitress and a filing clerk. In the evenings she pursues random sexual encounters, fastening on to any man that happens to be around.
Lucy is a Pre-Raphaelite Lolita: red hair, pale skin, small breasts – the kind of child-woman the Victorians idolised. She is attractive, but distant. Although we catch fleeting glimpses of emotion, her blank demeanour and passivity are almost sociopathic. In brief, she is no Jane Eyre. One suspects that most viewers will find it hard to summon up the slightest degree of empathy.
There is one scene in which Lucy burns a hundred dollar bill, showing her indifference towards money. Yet she needs to earn the stuff, which leads her to apply for a job with a peculiar type of escort agency run by a madam called Clara (Rachael Blake), the closest we get to the wicked queen of the fairy tale. Lucy’s first task is to host a silver service dinner party in stockings and undies, but she soon progresses to the more lucrative role of ‘sleeping beauty’. This entails drinking a knock-out drug and lying unconscious in a bed while a succession of dirty old men grope and paw her body. The only forbidden item is penetration, which may not even be an option for these aging libertines.
The first, Peter Carroll, is a romantic, who quotes a long passage from the German author, Ingeborg Bachmann. The second, a shaven-headed sadist – played by an unrecognisable Chris Haywood – is full of impotent rage. The third, Hugh Keays-Byrne – the Toecutter from Mad Max – drags Lucy around like a sack of potatoes.
If the idea of a nude, unconscious Emily Browning being manhandled sounds titillating, the actuality is rather unpleasant. It’s one of those things that only a female director might attempt with impunity. Had this film been directed by a man the passivity of the lead character would have seemed too much like a projection of a male fantasy. In this, Sleeping Beauty is reminiscent of Romance, Catherine Breillat’s controversial movie of 1999, in which Caroline Doucey played an equally passive role. (Coincidentally, Catherine Breillat’s most recent project was a film adaptation of Charles Perrault’s The Sleeping Beauty.)
This is the first full-length feature by director, Julia Leigh. The latest in an epidemic of Australian first-time features to appear this year, following Snowtown, Blame, and Penelope. The press release is studded with enthusiastic endorsements by Jane Campion – “sensuous, intriguing, complex and unafraid”; “heartbreaking, tender, terrifying”. It sounds like a different film to the one I watched. For all her pallid beauty, Lucy is anything but sensuous. She approaches sex with the same passion she might bring to a mathematical equation. Her passivity feels morbid rather than “heartbreaking’, as there is nothing sexy about a death-wish.
The only person Lucy warms to is Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a fragile, reclusive personality equally in love with the abyss. Whatever the director’s intentions, this character is barely developed, and we fail to understand why he is supposed to be interesting.
It may be a reflection of the film’s fairy tale nature, but the narrative proceeds by a series of tableaux that never coallesce into a coherent story. Even the camerawork has a peculiar passivity.
Leigh’s chief role model is probaby not Catherine Breillat, but Luis Bunuel, whose movies are full of discontinuous narratives and striking images. Watching Sleeping Beauty, one inevitably thinks of Belle de Jour (1967) in which Catherine Deneuve plays a bourgeois house-wife who decides to become a high class prostitute. Alongside Deneuve’s immaculate, icy reserve, Browning seems like a disaffected little punk.
The atmosphere of student life, with its shared households, parties, and part-time jobs, adds a  sociological element to the story. Where Bunuel is all Surrealist sang-froid, Leigh gives us the option of seeing Lucy as less of a psychological enigma than an example of alienated youth. This is an each-way bet that undermines the fim’s magical – or existential – asprirations.
Leigh says she is interested in the idea of a “Wonder Cinema” that leaves audiences holding their breath, but she might have realised that every intrusion of social reality takes the edge off that sensation.
In the fairy tale the climactic moment is when Sleeping Beauty wakes up, and by the end of this film Lucy will undergo her own rude awakening. It is not a Walt Disney moment, but a harsh cracking of the carapace of her personality. It is only at the end that we realise Lucy did not need to be lying unconcious in bed to play the part of Sleeping Beauty. Despite her promiscuity, she has lived her entire life like a sleepwalker, with “no penetration” the golden rule.
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 25, 2011
Australia. 101 minutes.