Written and Directed by: Julia Leigh
Starring: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, and Peter Carroll
Director of Photography: Geoffrey Simpsons, Editor: Nick Meyers, Production Designer: Annie Beauchamp, Original Music: Ben Frost
Rated: Not Rated, but a “children’s” fairy tale this is not.
Lucy, the quiet and seemingly self-assured protagonist of Sleeping Beauty, is not one to care what happens to her body. In the film’s opening scene, she participates as a lab rat where a research assistant sticks some sort of long contraption down her throat, all the way down to her stomach. Phallic intentions need not be mentioned, but Lucy doesn’t mind; as long as she gets paid for her work, she has no interest in how her body is used.
And Sleeping Beauty, the first film from an Australian novelist named Julia Leigh (and produced by Jane Campion), is a commentary on the female body with its extremely cryptic narrative involving the story of a woman who is willingly used and abused by those around her. Ms. Leigh is obviously making a feminist parable, but her choices of how we can read the film are so slight and never made explicit that the film is undoubtedly watchable and impossible to ignore. Whether you like the film or not could be a divisive question, but Ms. Leigh and her star Emily Browning have made a film that is certainly going to challenge you at every step.
The choice of Ms. Browning within this narrative might make some recall the disastrous Sucker Punch, which also told a story about female pleasure as a commodity. Of course, Ms. Leigh has a much stronger understanding of such issues than that film’s director, Zack Snyder. Ms. Browning’s Lucy is a college student in need of dire cash. Her mother, who remains off screen but always in her mind, is a struggling alcoholic, as well as her ex-boyfriend whom she plays a series of odd games with at his apartment. To pay her tuition and rent, she works a number of jobs, including as a waitress and a legal assistant. Not to mention she also seems to work as a prostitute on the side as she coyly approaches wealthier men at a fancy bar.
But one day she finds an ad for a special type of job—we only here on the phone that she is told to describe herself as “slim” and “fair.” When she goes to the interview, which is at first described an erotic waitress, the employer explains that she will not be penetrated. “Your vagina is a temple,” she is assured, though disagrees with. As it turns out, Lucy’s job eventually gravitates to one where she drinks a chemical that puts her into a coma-like sleep, in which men then spend the night with her. The idea is that the men are free to do whatever they want with no one—not even the sleeping Lucy—watching them.
Ms. Leigh never lets the exact details of what motivates Lucy known to us, and Ms. Browning’s performance plays coy as well. She keeps herself as cryptic as the narrative herself, and only allows for a few slight moments a crack in her calm and collected façade. Similarly, Ms. Leigh’s camerawork never offers details. Rarely using editing, Ms. Leigh decidedly allows most shots in the film to play out in long shots with the characters sting or standing in the center of the frame. It’s both the film’s best and worth decision: it shows a certain self-control by Ms. Leigh, but it also loses the chance for her to really dig deeper into her narrative with more visual detail, though the art direction by Annie Beauchamp certainly provides plenty to look at.
As Lucy digs deeper into her job and becomes more committed to it due to her financial duress, Sleeping Beauty becomes more of a horror fable about a lack of female self-worth and the way that the idea that the female body is one for a female to control every aspect might not be the best idea. When we see what these men do when Lucy sleeps, it’s a frightening experience for which Ms. Browning is literally thrown around. Ms. Leigh never lets us into what’s going on underneath her own surface, but this only digs us deeper into this narrative. Whatever Sleeping Beauty is, it is full of narrative details that I will want to explore for days and weeks to come. Feminist parable through the eyes of misogyny? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Ms. Leigh has her own answers I’m sure, but she’d rather see them debated as the lights come up.