Directed by Julia Leigh
3.5 out 5
Australian author Julia Leigh decided to turn her hand to filmmaking in 2011 with the attention grabbing Sleeping Beauty. In this controversial debut feature, nihilistic university student Lucy (played with almost ice-cold detachment by Emily Browning) escalates her way up the ladder of very particular and ‘high class’ prostitution; prostitution that is, with “no penetration” – the one golden rule that hostess/glorified madame Clara (Rachael Blake) repeatedly tells her exclusively geriatric clients. Lucy, who sleepwalks her way through day jobs cleaning a restaurant and working in an office with all the enthusiasm of a dead fish, allows herself to be drugged whilst saggy, decrepit, lonely, but inevitably rich old men do what they want with her. These are the lecherous, lascivious and sexually repressed men found in the films of Luis Buñuel (Tristana and Viridiana in particular) transported to the high society world of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
Whilst Lucy is unaware of what happens whilst she sleeps, we are made privy to large sections of her ordeals, in which three separate clients, all seemingly clinging to life by their fingertips, use her as they will. Many of these scenes have been labelled ‘uncomfortable’ in subsequent reviews. Uncomfortable is sleeping on a sofa and waking up with a crooked neck – what happens while Lucy is asleep is at once sad, debauched and terrifying, but always excruciating viewing (particularly during the ‘interactions’ with Man 2 (Chris Haywood)).
The glacial nature of the work of Michael Haneke or of Ulrich Seidl’s Import/Export is crystalised across the screen throughout Sleeping Beauty. Yet in spite of, or perhaps partially due to, these favourable comparisons, Leigh’s film feels as though it is lacking something. Indeed, that Sleeping Beauty conjures memories of the films and directors mentioned above highlights that it’s premise is nothing new. Equally, just as Clara insists on “no penetration” thus rendering Lucy impenetrable (we are never 100% sure if this rule is adhered to, yet no sexual act is ever explicitly shown) so she is also impenetrable to us as an audience. In fact, the only scenes in which Lucy’s pure and virginal body is visibly infiltrated are when she voluntarily takes part in medical trials for money and has a plastic tube fed down her throat. These sequences themselves are difficult viewing due mainly to Lucy’s uncontrollable gagging and the connotations drawn with her newest ‘job’. That said, the film is equal parts transfixing and repulsive viewing, and all the more captivating for it.
We are never quite sure what makes Lucy tick. There appears to be a willful self-destruction, a desire to suffer and push herself as far as she can, regardless of consequences. This could perhaps be linked to an air of guilt concerning her alcoholic friend/spurned lover, Birdman (Ewen Leslie), with whom she enacts an almost fantasy quasi-marriage/family situation – paradoxically her only real relationship in the film.
But despite it’s name Sleeping Beauty is certainly no fairytale. Leigh’s detached and often static camera keeps us focused when we want to look away, like a malfunctioning magic mirror, mirror on the wall that only shows us what it wants us to see. It will be interesting to see if the director continues with this theme and feel in her next feature, assuming that hopefully there is one. But as this film comes towards its conclusion curiosity gets the better of Lucy and she decides that she wants to go through the looking glass, to know what happens as the beauty sleeps. What she awakes to however, is nothing short of a nightmare.