Sleeping Beauty (2011)
104 min., rated R.
"Sleeping Beauty" premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, where critics received an early-bird screening and praised the courageous performance by Emily Browning. Naturally, it's touted as "courageous" because she gets naked and just lays in a bed to be fondled by wrinkled men that could be her grandfather. That might be considered fearless and brave from an acting standpoint, but either way, the film itself deserves no such praise. Backed by filmmaker Jane Campion, "Sleeping Beauty" is the feature debut of Australian novelist-turned-filmmaker Julia Leigh, who also wrote the script, but collapses under the weight of its own artistic intent and strange exploration of psychosexual ideas. By no surprise, the film was not selected for the Palme d'Or.
Independent university student Lucy (Browning) works menial jobs to come up with her apartment rent. Her odd gigs include playing guinea pig to medical experimentation (a string is inserted through her mouth and into her gullet), making copies at an upscale office, and waitressing at an eatery. When she's not working, she accepts lines of coke from strangers in lounge bathrooms and prostitutes herself to men that have to flip a coin for her body. Her morning ritual consists of visiting and caring for her only friend, Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), an agoraphobic alcohol who takes vodka in his cereal. When her roommates threaten to kick her out of the apartment, Lucy answers an ad for more work. Clara (Rachael Blake), the woman that welcomes and interviews Lucy, informs her that the job requires absolute discretion and confidentiality. After having Lucy strip down to her underwear and inspecting her body, Clara offers Lucy the kinky position as a lingerie waitress for private parties and tells her to go by the name "Sarah" when on the job. Her serving talents will come with a promotion: she will be drugged and unconscious in a bed so old clients can have their way with the "sleeping beauty." "You will go to sleep. You will wake up. It will be as if those hours never existed," Clara tells her. But there is one rule: no penetration, because Lucy's "vagina is a temple." That apparently hefty pay better be worth it.
Leigh's film is handsomely made, with her glacial pacing and precise static shots and head-on framing, but she is too coy in her messaging and too muddled in her storytelling. She seems to be saying that young women are sexually submissive when they're asleep and naked, and old men are still dominant and able to excite their fantasies. You don't say! Nothing feels germane to anything else, and character relationships are left opaque and we hold only the most clinical connection to them. Browning has such an expressive, porcelain-doll face and a fair-skinned innocence that it's a shame she's given so little to work with in the part of Lucy. She's merely the object of the male gaze and touch. Lucy isn't complex or interesting, just inscrutable, financially strapped, and morally loose. If she is self-loathing, why not find a job that gains her self-respect? We discover that Lucy's mother is an alcoholic, but answering a phone call from her, Lucy spouts off a credit card number from memory. Is it her own account information? Is it even real? Who knows? After finding cigarette burns on her neck, Lucy decides to buy a micro surveillance camera that she sets up in the sleeping chamber to find out what the men do with her while she's out. But to what end?
Only associated with the Brothers Grimm fairy tale by its title, "Sleeping Beauty" attempts to pass itself off as an erotic art film. But really, it's just masturbatory filmmaking and pretentious nonsense. Like an abstract piece of art you'd find in a museum, "Sleeping Beauty" will only be appreciated and understood by its artist. It's icky when it should provoke something other than off-putting titillation.