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Monday, April 30, 2012

Review: Sleeping Beauty (2011)

* * *
Director: Julia Leigh
Starring: Emily Browning

My first thought after watching Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty: "... What?" My first thought after sleeping on it and allowing it a little time to sink in: "No, seriously: what?" Loosely based on Yasunari Kawabata's The House of Sleeping Beauties, Sleeping Beauty is the kind of uncompromising and challenging film that people who hate art house fare use as justification for hating art house fare, and that people who love it use as justification for loving it. Where you fall on the spectrum will probably determine how much you admire this film, which I imagine will continue to be an incredibly polarizing piece of work for years to come.

The sleeping beauty in question is Lucy (Emily Browning), a university student working several jobs to try to make ends meet, from waiting tables, doing grunt work in an office, and submitting herself as a test subject for medical research. She responds to an ad placed by Clara (Rachael Blake) and is given a job doing very specific and specialized sex work. Namely, she does silver service at parties while clad in lingerie. Later on the job becomes more involved, with Lucy driven out to a country mansion and given tea that will put her to sleep in time for the client's arrival. She's assured (though she doesn't much seem to care) that she won't be penetrated while she's out and then in the morning she's driven home, having no idea of what transpired between herself and the client while she was sleeping.

Lucy takes all of this more or less in stride, as her personal life is a lot more fraught and challenging than her work life. Her mother is an alcoholic who only contacts her when she wants money, her landlords seem determined to push her out of her home, and the only real relationship she seems to have is with Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), an alcoholic who has withdrawn from life but who treats her with affection (and not just because when she comes over she makes him cereal liberally dosed with vodka). His final descent coincides (or, perhaps, acts as the catalyst, depending on your view) with the rest of her world falling apart (or, alternately, with her coming to a crucial point where her life will start to change for the better - again, it depends on your view). Birdmann dies during one of their visits, she loses her office job, and she comes close to losing her life as a result of her lack of candour with Clara. She also develops an urgent need to know what happens when she goes to sleep and sneaks a tiny camera into the bedroom in an effort to find out.

I'm at something of a loss to really describe the point of view of Sleeping Beauty. On the one hand, Lucy seems like a very passive character, both in terms of her work with Clara, and in her personal life (an early scene sees her leaving the decision of whether or not she'll sleep with a man up a coin toss). At the same time, however, she does seem to have a definite, albeit very casual, sense of agency over herself. She has control over her body by not caring what happens to it (when explaining the job, Clara tells her that she won't be penetrated because her body's a temple and Lucy dismisses that idea, declaring that her body is not a temple) and the point of the film may be that Lucy learns how to connect her body to her mind (in essence how to treat it like a temple). I say "may be" because the film seems determined to embody an ambiguous open-endedness. Leigh spells nothing out, leaving the audience to make connections based on hints, some of them very slight, and the film never really lifts back the veil on itself. It tells a story but without the story really telling you anything, and it ends abruptly and on a note that raises more questions than it answers.

Sleeping Beauty could be (and to some, I'm sure, is) a bad movie, one of those maddeningly vague art films that serve more as an empty mental exercise than an actually piece of art, but I found it rather haunting and thought provoking. I didn't "like" it, exactly, but I admired it and from a first time director, I think it's a remarkable achievement and shows a great deal of promise. On a purely technical level, this is a great film, one full of shots of painterly beauty while at the same time adopting a very clinical view of sex and sexuality. In a way, Leigh is like a mashup of directors Jane Campion and Catherine Breillat and she demonstrates here a level of confidence and control that is rare for a novice. I'm not certain that she's entirely successful in what she's trying to do here, but I think that Sleeping Beauty ends up being a profoundly interesting piece of work that is well worth all the time you spend thinking about it afterwards.

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