You won’t see a bewitched princess, rosy-cheeked and slumbering away in a castle to await her prince in Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty.” Instead, Leigh’s chilling arthouse film presents the heroine as Lucy (Emily Browning), a college student strapped for cash. Lucy works a variety of odd jobs, one of which requires — slightly like the fable — that she be put to sleep. Except that Lucy is willingly drugged for a private erotic club, and those wealthy, geriatric men aren’t climbing into her bed to give her true love’s kiss.
In her debut film, Australian novelist/director Julia Leigh delivers an original, cryptic vision that’s far removed from fairy tales told by the likes of the Brothers Grimm or Disney. Shot in a gorgeous palette of sea greens and blues awash in cold light, the film is pervasively clinical as it follows Lucy around her random occupations.
There is little background explanation as Lucy works at a cafe, makes copies at an office, subjects herself to invasive medical experiments and does some freelance prostitution at a bar. She is mostly alone and detached, apart from when she visits a depressed recluse named Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), who enjoys his cereal doused in vodka. Such odd details sometimes come across as black comedy, but are brief respites from the largely bleak and opaque events of Lucy’s life.
There are lots of enigmas to pick apart in this story, and one of the most intriguing is Lucy herself. Emily Browning, endowed with alabaster skin and thick, strawberry blonde locks, is an ethereal presence who holds together the film’s exceedingly slow pacing. While Browning starred in the recent action film “Sucker Punch,” one only needs to see the children’s film “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” to see that she was luminous onscreen even as a teenager. In “Sleeping Beauty,” Browning’s blank-faced passivity breaks into raw emotion in rare moments, giving the film’s almost too cryptic plot an absorbing center.
While Leigh’s narrative is often obscure, it also has the distinct power to be both beautiful and seriously creepy, even injecting campy humor at times. “Your vagina will be a temple,” declares Clara (Rachael Blake), a classily-dressed, blonde woman that Lucy interviews with for a high-paying job that’s vaguely described but overtly erotic. Clara and an assistant then proceed to measure Lucy’s half-naked body as if she were prize livestock, examining her thighs and checking her teeth. One may wonder why Lucy yields, but her face expresses a cold disdain, not total submission.
We never quite know what’s going on in Lucy’s mind when she acquiesces to the puzzling duties at Clara’s kinky escort service (watch out for a great line, possibly the dirtiest ever on required shades of lipstick), but her decisions seem to come from a mixture of youthful impulsiveness and apathy.
Like the way Lucy is indifferent to her own sexual objectification, the film also approaches erotica with an unyielding, frosty gaze. After Lucy is hired, the film delves into her work at Clara’s elaborately staged, erotic dinner parties.
Yet the atmosphere is hardly sensuous. It’s disquieting to watch young Lucy, with Browning’s petite figure and Kewpie Doll head, serve brandy in a frilly brassiere to old men as she’s dwarfed by taller, more voluptuous co-workers in far scantier clothing (think leather strips purposed to reveal more than they cover). But Leigh’s camera, nearly stationary for every scene, just stares on in an equally frigid way.
Later, Lucy graduates to the club’s highest level of service, which is to take a sleeping potion and submit her fully unconscious, nude body to leering elderly men. While the ground rule is that no penetration is allowed, it’s hardly reassuring. Her clients range from menacing sadists to somber literary types, but all of them are a touch pathetic, rubbing Lucy’s skin as if she were a magic talisman that could make them young again.
The disturbing combination of titillation and dispassion that so interests Leigh is chock-full of grander theories on voyeurism, sexual violation and patriarchal deficiency. However, Leigh’s hefty feminist ideologies never pan out in an accessible way, which is sometimes maddeningly frustrating. But as the story quietly sinks its teeth into what happens to Lucy’s semi-comatose body at night, the effect is deeply frightening and hard to shake off.
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