Sleeping Beauty *
Directed by: Julia Leigh.
Written by: Julia Leigh.
Starring: Emily Browning (Lucy), Rachael Blake (Clara), Ewen Leslie (Birdmann), Peter Carroll (Man 1), Chris Haywood (Man 2), Hugh Keays-Byrne (Man 3), Bridgette Barrett (Dinner Waitress).
Sleeping Beauty is a beautiful but empty film, much like its heroine. First time director Julia Leigh (who is a novelist by trade) has made a film that is never less than interesting to look at, with her slow methodical pace that gazes at its childlike heroine Lucy (Emily Browning). For the first half of the movie, I was trying to figure out what made her tick, as if that would unlock the mystery of the movie. But as it wore along, I grew more and more suspicious that there wasn’t anything to get in this movie. It is as empty as it appears to be.
Lucy is a college student in desperate need to money. She subjects herself to medical experiments for extra cash, and works at least two part time jobs, one in a café and one filing in an office. She also occasionally goes out at night and works as a prostitute. Her roommates hate her, and are constantly on her about the rent. She has one friend, a shut in who lives by himself in his apartment and is suicidal. What their connection is, I have no idea, because the movie never tells us. Apparently working these three jobs and going to school isn’t enough for Lucy, who answers an ad and is told that she will be paid $250 an hour, but don’t worry, they’ll be no penetration. She starts out as a scantily clad waitress for upscale dinner parties, but soon, she’ll become a “sleeping beauty”. Essentially, she’s drugged and lies in bed passed out, while men do whatever they want to her – not including penetration, of course.
The casting of Emily Browning in the movie is interesting, because while she is an adult, she has the body of a prepubescent teenage girl. She is tiny, her skin an almost ghostly white. At times, she seems like a little girl playing dressup. This is the second time in 2011 that she has been cast as a sex object - the first being Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch. This film has higher ambitions than Sucker Punch did, but no more psychological insight.
I understand the idea that the men who pay to do what they want to her while she sleeps see her as only a sex object. What they do while with her says more about them than it does about her, as she doesn’t even know what is going on. And yet, I think that would only be interesting if the movie itself viewed her as something more than a sex object, and I don’t think it does. Perhaps Leigh purposefully made her a blank object so that the audience can project what they want on her, much like the men do. But for me, it didn’t work. I wanted to know SOMETHING about this woman, why she does what she does, and the movie doesn’t provide even an inkling.
In the November/December issue of Film Comment, Laura Kern posted duel reviews of Shame and Sleeping Beauty, which were essentially the same, but changed a few words here and there. The purpose was to show that each movie is hollow and empty and by the numbers. I agree about Sleeping Beauty, but not about Shame. Shame provides reasons for its main character and his descent into hell, and provides insight. Sleeping Beauty doesn’t. It’s that difference that makes Shame one of the best films of the year, and Sleeping Beauty one of the worst.