“Such a sleep works wonders.”
By turns haunting, baffling, risible, voyeuristic, perverse, tender, and funny, novelist Julia Leigh’s directorial debut is a strange one. It may take its title from a fairytale but this Sleeping Beauty owes more to Walerian Borowczyk than the Brothers Grimm. The film may well be a critique of modern young women and their willingness to submit to the desires of men; or a parody of the service industry taking the absurdities inherent in fine dining and raising them to a whole new level. It may even be a dream for at one point sleeping beauty closes her eyes and the screen goes black.
Lucy (Emily Browning) is a pretty student who pays for her studies in a variety of ways. She submits to medical experimentation, works as a waitress in a café, photocopies documents as an office drone, and occasionally prostitutes herself in nightclubs to guys who can’t believe their luck. Despite earning money she never pays the rent in her shared accommodation. Lucy is ambivalent, just drifting along, sleepwalking through life. There is a tender friendship with a withdrawn literary type (Ewan Leslie) who appears to be drinking himself to death but no other emotional bonds.
She answers a personal ad for a waitress with silver service experience placed by Clara (Rachael Blake), a fixer for wealthy clients and arranger of unusual requests. Lucy’s uniform is pink lingerie. She starts serving at weird dinner parties for older men, and one noticeably masculine looking female, at which the guests eat ludicrously prepared dishes overseen by a maître d who looks like a topless version of an extra from a Robert Palmer video. Clara persuades Lucy to become her sleeping beauty, to lie drugged in a bed for melancholy old men to peruse at their leisure though she remains unaware of what is happening to her.
There is a disturbing sequence when one of these men becomes aggressive, burning her with a cigar, yet even though she is sleeping she seems the stronger of the two. He is impotent, ugly, and unlovable. Aware of it too no doubt and perhaps this fuels his rage. Yet Julia Leigh is by no means unsympathetic to the vagaries of age. One man delivers a startling monologue about his weariness with life. What makes this moment more immediate is Leigh’s decision to cut from a reverse shot by having the actor directly face the camera as he begins to speak. Though in terms of the narrative he is talking to Clara, Leigh breaks the Fourth Wall bringing the viewer into the story, another voyeur here to observe but never touch the heroine.
Sleeping Beauty is made up of static takes, the camera rarely moving, just watching and observing. The acting is non-realistic and underplayed and the ethereal Emily Browning is outstanding. The effect is unsettling and often this deadpan approach is quite funny. Though it may be inscrutable Sleeping Beauty is all the better for this ambiguity. Leigh has already written the screenplay for another movie, The Hunter (2011, Daniel Nettheim) based on her own novel, but it will be interesting to see what she chooses to direct next.
Cast & Crew Interviews are fairly short but in Leigh’s case revealing as she discusses her approach to the film and how she wants the audience to be a “tender witness.” Apart from that there are only trailers; one for Sleeping Beauty, the disturbing serial killer movie Snowtown (2011, Justin Kurzel), and a TV mini-series called The Slap starring Melissa George and Alex Dimitriades.