I don’t Flora, Fauna, or Merriweather would approve.
A favorite around film festivals last year, the debut feature from novelist turned filmmaker Julia Leigh is now on DVD for all to experience. It’s not Disney.
Lucy (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch) lives on her own in the big city. She works two entry-level jobs, earns extra cash by volunteering for medical tests, experiments with drug use, and is promiscuous with strangers she meets in bars. One day, she answers an ad and gets a job in “silver service,” as a lingerie-clad hostess for kinky rich folks’ parties. Eager for more money, Lucy signs up for higher level of service, in which she is sedated, and asleep while her male “customers” do whatever they want to her. She then wakes in the morning with no knowledge of who was with her or what happened. After a few of these late-night sessions, Lucy decides she has to investigate, and learn just what was done to her while she slept.
The first shot of the movie is Lucy in a medical laboratory. She signs a form, and then a man in a white lab coat places a long plastic tube into her mouth, forcing her to swallow it and then regurgitate it back up. We’re dropped into this cold yet somehow intimate scene with absolutely no context. This leaves us not with plot or character, emphasizing only theme—a theme that reoccurs throughout the film, that of a passive young woman who willingly allows others to manipulate her.
Sleeping Beauty is a great example of how much a director brings to a script. If this were directed by, say, someone from Roger Corman’s camp, then it would be naught but exploitation sleaze. Instead, director Julia Leigh is just as interested in exploring her heroine’s psyche as much as her body. If your only interest in this film is, “Dude, dat chick from Sucker Punch is gon’ get nekkid!” then you’ll likely be bored. Leigh lights and films Browning in the “Botticelli painting” style. There are almost no close-ups and the camera rarely moves, thus framing all the action in a single static shot with long uninterrupted takes. The result of this is that when camera does push in on an actor, you sit up and notice it. You pay attention, knowing that these are the big, important moments.
Does this plot merit such exquisite camera work? That’s a good question. There have been a ton of “young-girl-in-the-big-city-gets-involved-in-the-sex-industry-and-ends-up-in-over-her-own-head” movies made, and there’s certain to be a lot more. The gimmick here is made up of scenes of older men pawing at Lucy while she’s unconscious. (This is allegedly a real thing, called “somnophilia.” Google it if you want to be horrified.) The metaphor at work here could be how sex workers are “dead inside” as they pleasure their customers, but, given how much time we spend with Lucy in her jobs, with her roommates, and screwing strangers she meets in bars, there’s more to it than that. Lucy is, in effect, “sleeping” through her whole life, as she drifts dead-eyed from encounter to encounter, experience to experience. It’s not until late in the film that she “wakes up,” and this only happens after she’s pushed to absolute extremes.
While Lucy is often a blank state throughout the film, she shows a lot of spark and personality when visiting Birdmann (Ewen Leslie, Three Blind Mice). Who is this guy, and what is the exact nature of their relationship? We’re not told. They talk a lot about sex, but don’t have it (at least not that we see), and they casually joke about getting married, with hints that this is perhaps more than playful flirtation for them. What does Birdmann represent in this story? It’s wide open to interpretation, but it looks to me like he represents a feeling home and comfort, something Lucy has nowhere else in her life. Lucy has no family except for an awkward phone call early in the film. She has no friendships, as her roommates clearly dislike her, and she has no relationships, except for random sex n’ drug encounters in bars. It’s only with Birdmann that Lucy can truly be herself without fear of consequence. Birdmann’s exit from the story, then, further serves to push Lucy toward her “waking up” at the film’s conclusion.
Whether you like Sleeping Beauty for its artistry or dislike it for its exploitation, you’ve got to hand it to Emily Browning for her fearless performance. I’ve seen interviews with stuntmen who say the hardest stunt is not something like jumping off of buildings, but playing a dead body, and having to be completely limp, and still. Browning throws herself into this role with abandon, essentially playing dead in several scenes. She’s required to be both lifeless and nude, as others aggressively grope and fondle her. These nudie scenes aren’t sexy at all, but are instead uncomfortable and squirm-worthy, giving the entire movie a feeling of unease. This couldn’t have been easy for Browning, yet she completely commits to it. In other scenes, she is, as noted above, a blank—adrift and numb to almost everyone she encounters. The performance is understated by choice—as are all the performances, really—just to build up to the big moment when Lucy metaphorically wakes up and utterly explodes. It’s a moment of horror and rebirth at once, and Browning totally goes for it.
It’s not exactly a feminist movie, is it? There are a whole lot of people out there who aren’t going to like the thought of an older man sharing a bed with a drugged, unconscious young woman, no matter what the context or metaphor. Lucy is a passive protagonist, spending most of the movie reacting to what’s happening to her, taking very few actions of her own. Katniss, she’s not.
At times, Sleeping Beauty gets too artsy for its own good. At one point, Lucy picks up a $100 bill and lights it on fire. Why does she do this? To show that for the first time in her life she, literally, has money to burn? To further illustrate her already-established self-destructive behavior? To reveal that the sex trade is not about money for her, but instead has some deeper, emotional resonance? No matter how you decide to interpret it, it adds little to the story, or to our understanding of the character. The movie is full of odd, slightly surreal touches like this. Maybe film students will enjoy debating the meanings of these occasional sprinkles of weirdness, but they seemed unnecessary to me, a distraction from the narrative.
The picture quality on the DVD is superb. Yes, the image is soft, but that’s intentional on the part of the filmmakers, again to capture the Botticelli-style look. Sound is good as well, although this is not a movie with a lot of music or sound effects, relying instead on dialogue and long, tense silences. A trailer is the only extra. Given the understated nature of the performances, pretty much everyone in the film speaks in hushed, whispery tones, so if you don’t watch with the disc’s English subtitles on, you won’t be able to understand a word anyone says.
Sleeping Beauty is not a movie for everyone. With one foot planted in highbrow art and the other planted in lowbrow sleaze, it is certain to elicit as many different reactions from viewers as there are viewers. It’s beautifully filmed, but there’s no disguising its ugliness. The lead actress gives a truly daring performance, and yet you find yourself wishing she didn’t have to go to such extremes.
What does this movie do? It provokes. It provokes discussion, it provokes reactions, it provokes shock and unease. Do I recommend that you see and/or buy this movie? That depends entirely on you, and if you wish to be provoked.