Ed. N.: This article originally appeared on October 9, 2011, in my series of film reviews for the Vancouver International Film Festival, and has been edited slightly for the commercial release.
Sometimes, a work of art is too beautiful to behold but seems a little remote, just out of reach, and not quite accessible. Julia Leigh’s stunning Sleeping Beauty falls into that category of cinematic art.
Lucy (Emily Browning) is a young college student who seems addicted to work of all kinds. She is a high-class prostitute at night and supplements her tuition by also working shifts at a restaurant and doing administrative work in a corporate office. Her most regular client is Birdman, a lonely man who doesn’t ask her to perform anything sexual on him, and prefers her company while he eats his cereal with vodka.
Lucy answers an ad for a night job as a server in an erotic-themed catering company on a freelance basis, with the potential to obtain greater work. The enterprise is owned by a plumy-voiced, exquisite madam named Claire (Rachael Blake), whose soothing demeanour masks the more demeaning aspects of the job. If Charlotte Rampling ever decided to retire from acting, Blake is a surefire replacement, as she has that authoritative, sexy but dangerous voice down pat. Soon enough, Lucy becomes Claire’s “sleeping beauty”, by essentially being knocked unconscious with a sedative in a chamber while rich old male clients have their way with her, but without actual penetration. At some point, Lucy realizes that she needs to know what’s been going on while she’s been unconscious and submissive.
Leigh’s film is undoubtedly inspired by the dehumanizing, cruel edge Michael Haneke brings to the cinema. This is a cold film where we follow the lead character relentlessly but know little of her inner life. What must she be thinking, feeling, saying? She has classmates and roommates, but we don’t get the sense that she has any actual close friends. Browning has a stunning pre-Raphaelite beauty that glows incandescently, and perhaps some of the most perfect alabaster skin ever seen in a film. And yet despite the client’s ability to own her body, she remains as remote and mysterious as a figurine. She is presented in a delicately art-directed chamber that recalls a museum piece on display, but never connects with her clients in any way whatsoever. Perhaps this is Leigh’s point: that owning fantasy is never the same thing as connecting with it.
Ultimately, Leigh has crafted a handsome art piece that, because it rejects conventional narrative form for imagery, might be too difficult for some. As an exercise in cinema, it is exquisitely fashioned, with several unforgettable images that will burn into the psyche. The mise-en-scène is comprised of somnambulist erotic tableaux, and it’s clear that Leigh has a gift for imagery. Browning delivers one of the most daring performances in cinema this year, taking massive artistic risks and laying her body bare (if not quite her soul) showing that she is a serious, challenging type. (Trivia note: the role originally belonged to acclaimed actress Mia Wasikowska.) That being said, the film has a hard edge comparable to beautiful but poisonous flora. There was a lot of uncomfortable laughter at the sold-out screening I attended, myself included. Already notorious for appearing on the Black List of unproduced Hollywood screenplays, this difficult piece requires full attention, and perhaps another viewing, in order to fully digest and decipher its meaning. Leigh’s dialogue is sparse, and she demands that her viewer see beyond the words and images to gather her overall meaning. Although this will no doubt confuse the masses and frustrate mainstream critics, I can already sense that Sleeping Beauty is really a master’s thesis which must be examined in closer detail.
Sleeping Beauty opens in limited commercial release in New York and LA on Friday, December 2.