Film Review – Sleeping Beauty
There are many reasons to dislike Sleeping Beauty, the new film from first-time writer/director Julia Leigh, but at least being sick of half-hearted fairy tale updates is not one of them. This is because the film has almost nothing to do with the traditional Charles Perrault tale, or any of the versions that have come since. If you were hoping for a smart commentary on one of the ultimate damsel-in-distress scenes, or even just a satisfying re-telling of the much-loved story, look elsewhere. What we have here is oblique randomness in which, yes, at several points a beautiful girl does catch a few winks. That’s about it.
Lucy (Emily Browning), seems to be a college student of some sort. We know this because she wanders around a campus and attends at least one class, not because we hear her talk about what she might be studying or learn anything about her interests or goals. Whatever reason she’s in school, she needs to pay for it. She participates in some type of clinical trial that involves swallowing a bulb on the end of a string (or something) and also works at a café and at an office. Judging from an angry interaction with her roommate, she’s still not quite making ends meet.
She goes out to a club, meets another girl, has some cocaine in the bathroom, and exchanges some deadpan but sexually explicit dialogue with a couple of middle-aged gentlemen. She allows one of them to flip a coin to determine whether she’ll have sex with him. When the coin toss says sex it is, she responds “Yes, my prince,” and I believe we are meant to think this is clever, given the title of the film. It’s not. Like all the dialogue in the film, it’s heavy-handed but meaningless. Then they go have sex, I guess.
So, we know Lucy needs money, and we know she’s willing to have sex with strange dudes she doesn’t know. No surprise at all, this leads to exploring some opportunities to combine the two. After answering an ad in the newspaper, she meets with a steely blonde called Clara (Rachael Blake) and is inducted with surprising ease into some sort of super-secret, not-actually-very-sexy sex service for rich people, wherein ladies serve elaborate meals wearing unflattering dominatrix gear, etc. With a taste for the kind of cash she can make in this business, Lucy seeks more assignments, and eventually is given the one that provides us with the in-no-way-fairy-tale-related title of the film: take a pill, go to sleep, let some old dude have his way with you, remember nothing. But with no penetration, because the vagina is a temple. I am not making that last part up.
We seem to come to the point of the film: these non-penetrative nights in the sleeping chamber. Did I mention there’s no penetration? The film wants us to be really clear about that. We’re reminded before every scene, as Clara tells whatever old man is going to spend the night with Lucy. (None of them seem remotely surprised or disappointed, so make of that what you will.) Is this rule helping the film provide a commentary on the importance of “technical” virginity in our society? Lucy is decidedly not a virgin, so I don’t know about that. Is it that the scenes are more about youth vs. age, and intercourse doesn’t have so much to do with it? Maybe. Is it that Leigh just doesn’t have the guts to go that far with her scenario? That’s the answer I’m leaning toward.
I don’t know what the point of this film is. Leigh has a chance to say something about the commodification of young female bodies by using a main character so uncaring about hers that she asks literally zero questions when told to drink up and pass out, but fails to connect any dots. In fact, the film itself seems to want to congratulate Emily Browning on having such a conventionally perfect, alabaster shape, more so even than the characters, who are pretty nonchalant about it. The camera stays persistently pulled back, letting us view her from head to toe more often than not. If this is meant to provide an unobtrusive, observational tone, for me it was instead cold and uncaring, exacerbating the problem of how little we know Lucy as a person. What little backstory we do get comes in scenes that seem ripped from a depressed college freshman’s one-act play about how detached we all are from one another, as Lucy visits a sick friend and later propositions a former lover, interactions that in no way contribute to any sort of forward motion in the plot, as far as there is one.
This film was a chore to watch. What seems to want to be mysterious is just boring; what seems to want to be deep is absurd. The actors are uniformly wooden and the dialogue completely painful. And if there is any coherent subtext at all, well, I just couldn’t penetrate the unpleasant surface to get to it.
Sleeping Beauty opens today at SIFF Cinema at the Film Center.
Final Grade: D-