As Julia Leigh’s directorial debut, Sleeping Beauty is notable for it’s conceptual daring and narrative ambition, especially considering the current landscape of Australian cinema. Seemingly a work of indistinct, intercontinental influence, it’s as enigmatically framed and tenuously paced as a piece of stereotypical, Eastern European Cannes-fodder (Import/Export’s lurid, body-selling dystopia comes to mind) and the minimally-drawn traumas that unfold are much more reminiscent of such recent foreign creepers as Dogtooth or Haneke’s Cache. Yet for all it’s provocation and psycho-analytic character play it remains frustratingly distant, with Emily Browning’s morally-numb protagonist always keeping the audience at arms length and director Leigh furthering the disconnect by forcing banal, cryptic abstractions.
Browning plays Lucy, a college student just trying to make it through each day intact amidst the number of jobs she has to take to keep up with rent and tuition. However her propensity to do whatever comes her way, no matter the expense to her body or reputation, leads her to a number of shady gigs involving anything from life-threatening science experiments to barfly prostitution, though none are as ominously unnerving as a lingerie-waitressing job she takes up in a decadent mansion — a Salò-esque site of clandestine sexual fantasy and stately power displays. Her pale, virginal beauty offers her the opportunity to take up a new role as a ‘Sleeping Beauty’; a job that requires her to be unconscious while various paying-pundits reenact their sexual fantasies with her limp, unconscious body. In Lucy’s eyes it’s a promotion and a chance to earn more money, so of course she obliges.
Though tension inevitably builds as Lucy comes to realise the amount of damage she’s doing to herself, her decision to keep sleepwalking through her trials denies empathy and raises endless questions. At one point her entire motive for taking up the jobs in the first place is called into doubt when we see her burn a bank note in a flat she is due late for rent. As signs of normality in her life begin to fade, such as her relationships with a terminally ill man (Ewen Leslie) and her absent mother, Lucy succumbs to a life of tragic disarray, willingly retaliating against misfortune with acts of slow burning, self-destruction.
It’s unfortunate then that the film’s lack of directness, lack of dramatic punch and (near) lack of score make these curious elements play out in a vacuum, leaving the ultimate feeling being one of sleepiness rather than creepiness. Even spare attempts at much-needed humour, such as when Lucy cuts through the fog to state “My vagina is not a temple”, aren’t sufficient enough to enliven the mood. With it’s toes always on the edge of the diving board, you kind of just wait for it to jump.
MOVIE RATING: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Pierre Badiola
Release Date: 14 October 2011 (UK)
Director: Julia Leigh
Cast: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie
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