There’s a reflexive tendency of some viewers to mock or declare their boredom with films about ritualistic sex – Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, David Cronenberg’s Crash and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. When it had its debut at the Cannes Film Festival in May, director Julia Leigh’s modest but resonant first film, Sleeping Beauty, got some similar responses, which puts it in very good company.
Perhaps seat-bound critics have a professional bias against scenes that make cinema-goers squirm. There’s no doubt that Leigh, a celebrated if not prolific Australian novelist ( The Hunter, Disquiet) wants you to squirm. In the very first scene of her debut film, we see a student, Lucy (Emily Browning), doing one of those medical-experiments-for-cash. A technician feeds a long plastic tube into her mouth and down her throat. Think of it as a subliminal way of notifying the viewer: Get your gag reflex ready.
Browning ( Sucker Punch) is ethereal in appearance, with milky white skin and hair the reddish-gold colour named after the painter, Titian. She plays Lucy as a sort of animated zombie, running on a hamster wheel of activity and avoidance of emotional pain. She has a fragmented series of identities: student, medical subject, café waitress, office file copier and, during her reckless evenings, a singles’ bar vixen. Somewhere in the background, there’s a trouble-prone mother, with credit problems, heard on the phone. There’s a gentle sad literary friend, called Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), who is slowly dying of alcoholism, whom Lucy visits and cuddles, and pours vodka into his morning cereal.
One day she answers an ad for a high-paying job and is interviewed by a regal-looking middle-aged woman, Clara (Rachael Blake), who reveals Lucy’s new assignment with the detailed instructions of someone briefing a secret agent. Soon Lucy finds herself getting prepared with a group of older women, dressed in minimal corsets and stockings, to silently serve food and drink to a tableful of rich old men.
Lucy is soon offered a promotion to a higher level of service, with a few more risks. First, she drinks a sleeping potion that makes her pass out for the night. Then, the same old men from the dinner can take turns spending the night with her, doing whatever they want short of penetration. We watch from the in-bedroom camera as each white-haired client makes his transaction with Clara and then mauls Lucy’s pale body with a slightly different emphasis – worshipful, sadistic or mournful. The effect is like witnessing some strange anthropological rite, with the young woman put in a near-death state for the old men who gain life through contact with her young flesh.
Leigh, impressively for a first-time filmmaker, has a distinct and confident approach. Every scene in the film is shot in a long single take, a painstakingly gradual technique that’s sure to rapidly weed out the heavy-breathers in the audience. Still, there’s a definite forward momentum to Lucy’s story. After several nights of comatose employment, and increasingly agitated waking hours, she decides to find out what’s going on. She secretly videotapes one of her sessions, leading to a body-blow of a shock that is both plausible and metaphorically precise.
While it might be easy to dismiss Sleeping Beauty as an exercise in chilly titillation, that undervalues the precision of Leigh’s technique, and her story-teller’s slippery refusal to play to ideological expectations. At its simple core, Sleeping Beauty is a perfectly pitched chamber piece about the menace of voluntary oblivion. The theme might be summed up by the title of the famous short story by Delmore Schwartz: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities.
- Written and directed by Julia Leigh
- Starring Emily Browning
- Classification: 14A