December 9, 2011
Reviewed by Marc Glassman
A sexually charged film dealing with voyeurism, obsessions and kinky erotic practices, Sleeping Beauty had a controversial reception at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. While the respected British critic Peter Bradshaw reported in The Guardian that the film was “Technically elegant with vehemence and control … Emily Browning gives a fierce and powerful performance … There is force and originality in Leigh’s work,” the Hollywood Reporter’s reviewer David Rooney panned it, calling the film “soporific in every sense.”
It may seem that it’s an odd time to release such a film—but then the similarly erotic Shame was released last week. Apparently not every holiday film has to be made for the family. And that’s fine.
Erotic thriller; coming-of-age tale (with a twist)
Lucy (Browning) is working her way through college in just about every way possible. She performs relatively gruesome tasks as a lab “rat” for scientific experiments using the nose and throat (it’s a shocking opening scene), works as a bar maid in a local pub and then, when school work is done, Lucy hires herself out as a prostitute.
One day, she’s contacted to work at a high-end private men’s club. There, Lucy is tarted out as a very erotic French maid, but she isn’t asked to perform the more Sadeian tasks that the more experienced women undertake. Soon, she’s contacted again, this time to go to a mansion in the countryside. Lucy is offered a new high paying task: to drink a tea that will put her to sleep for hours. While she’s asleep, it’s explained to her, an elderly wealthy man will be with her—but he’s not allowed to commit rape. She agrees—and enjoys having a lot of money for the first time.
Lucy spends some of the money taking care of an alcoholic ex-junkie, The Birdmann, who is an old friend. And she moves out of her grotty housing situation into a fancy downtown high-rise. But the situation she’s in begins to bother her. What are the men doing? Finally—despite having agreed to never record anything—she sneaks a pocket video camera into her next session as Sleeping Beauty. What she finds out unnerves her—and the audience.
Everyone is deadpan in the film—which makes the eroticism that much more disturbing. Emily Browning’s Lucy is the only important character in the film and she’s a cipher. Browning is very good at keeping us out: it’s the same distance that she approaches everyone in her compartmentalized life. We’re drawn to her pale beauty and implacable nature but it’s never clear why she’s making hazardous choices in her life. I don’t think that’s Browning’s fault—the script forces her to be cold and impassive. Call it a disturbing performance—and brave.
It’s fascinating that Julia Leigh is a young Australian novelist, whose first major book The Hunter won international awards. Leigh has taught at Barnard and been mentored by Toni Morrison.
She directs her erotic twisted fairy tale with the cool intelligence of a writer and academic. Leigh clearly developed a level of trust with Emily Browning to elicit her controlled, effective performance.
Sleeping Beauty is a genuinely unnerving film. It questions role- playing, sexuality and the roles of men and women in society. This is an art-house film despite its use of nudity; the film is too cold to be genuinely sexy. Successful on its own terms, Sleeping Beauty should find a niche audience in theatres and DVD.