Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Julia Leigh
Stars: Emily Browning, Rachel Blake, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood, Hugh Keayes-Byrne.
This new Australian film is a haunting erotic fairy tale that caused something of a controversy when it screened at Cannes earlier this year. Many will be drawn to the film to check out what all the fuss was about. No doubt they will be disappointed. As will the raincoat brigade, drawn by reports of full frontal nudity and the heavy sexual content of the film. Rather than a voyeuristic fantasy, Sleeping Beauty is a rather dull and bland psychosexual drama from Julia Leigh, a former novelist making her feature film debut here.
Sleeping Beauty is a provocative but ultimately pointless study of sexual dynamics, female sexuality, liberation, and willing female submissiveness. Ace Aussie filmmaker Jane Campion (The Piano, etc) has mentored Leigh and championed the film, and its easy to see her attraction to this film which explores familiar theme of female sexuality. But one wishes she had had more input into the filmmaking process.
Lucy (played by Emily Browning, from Sucker Punch, etc) is a cash-strapped university student who is juggling three part-time jobs to make ends meet. In desperation, she takes on a high paying job in a high-end brothel. At first she starts out as a waitress, but is soon promoted to “sleeping beauty”, which is when things become a little creepy. She is drugged, stripped, and, while unconscious, becomes a baby doll who is groped and caressed by older lonely men who do all manner of perverted things – except penetration, which is strictly forbidden – that border on the necrophilic.
“You will go to sleep; you will wake up. It will be as if those hours never existed,” Clara calmly explains, but Lucy grows curious and wants to know what goes on while she is asleep. At one stage it seemed like there was going to be an orgy scene, rather like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Instead we get a strangely civil dinner party in which all the waitresses are scantily clad. There is something cold and detached about the sex scenes, which resemble Catherine Breillat’s confronting oeuvre.
This is a brave performance from Browning, who is nude or semi-naked for much of the time, yet manages to convey her emotionally fragile state. Rachael Blake (from Lantana, etc) is suitably cold and aloof as Clara, the madame of this high-class brothel that caters to a rather unusual clientele. The men who sleep with the narcoleptic Lucy are played by the urbane Peter Carroll, a sadistic and very creepy Chris Haywood, and a brutal Hugh Keayes-Byrne, who will forever be remembered as Toecutter from the original Mad Max.
Unfortunately, Leigh’s screenplay is sparse, and the overly pretentious dialogue is minimal and oblique, and gives little insight into character motivation. We are kept at a distance from the characters, and we feel little empathy or emotional connection with Lucy and her situation. We get very little backstory, apart from a few hints that point to her sense of desperation and worthlessness. Leigh’s direction lacks flair, and when scenes are finished they slowly fade into black. However, the film has been beautifully shot by veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson (Shine, Little Women, etc), who works with long takes and steady framing. His crisp images are gorgeous, and the film has a surface beauty that contrasts with its dark subject matter.
However, it is hard to see what audience Leigh is aiming for with her film. Sleeping Beauty is a far cry from the familiar fairy tale and the animated Disney film from 1959. Given its unsettling subject matter and Leigh’s frank approach, this is a film that will prove divisive and provoke debate over its artistic merits.