Release date: June 23, 2011
Director: Julia Leigh
Screenplay by: Julia Leigh
Cast: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie
While not the Kubrickian film that many expected, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty manages to present an interesting look into an unfamiliar world that will captivate some and frustrate others. Despite its flaws, it’s a film that will cause reflection on a range of dark topics and proves to be an ambitious debut feature for Leigh.
The story focuses on Lucy (Browning), a beautiful young woman in need of cash. Barely making ends meet, she attends school while holding down multiple part-time jobs in a bar, in an office, as a volunteer at a medical lab, and even trading cash for sex in her late nights. It doesn’t take long for Lucy to receive an almost irresistible freelance offer by Clara (Blake), the madam of a high class escort service for older gentlemen. For large sums of money, Lucy lies drugged and naked in bed while a man does whatever he pleases to her, with the exception of penetration.
There’s no doubt that Leigh has a talent for filmmaking and that the film is quite the experience. Many will see echoes of Kubrick in the minimal editing and the beautiful photography, especially that of his final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Eroticism is always lingering around the corner, but there is not much to be aroused by in this disturbing world. The way we look into the life of Lucy feels almost voyeuristic, being kept at a distance from these reckless and cold characters. Unfortunately, even with the help of a mentor such as Jane Campion, Leigh leaves certain aspects weaker than others. She seems to focus almost all of her effort on symbolism and contrasting the dark nature of her film with beautiful images, rather than fully developing and executing a screenplay with more depth.
Luckily enough, the detached nature and taboo subjects that Julia Leigh explores in her film are definitely food for divisive discussion. Sleeping Beauty explores female sexuality in a way quite unlike what most films attempt, and it’s interesting for the open-mind willing to interpret the sexual dynamics of the characters. The sex scenes are confrontational — never taking the camera away from the perverse actions of these older men. While tamer than one might expect, Leigh manages to instill an unsettling mood with each of these sedated encounters that borders on necrophilia.
If there is one thing in the film that deserves much praise, it is the brave performance that Emily Browning delivers. While many will remember her as Violet in Lemony Snicket’s A Serious of Unfortunate Events, Browning reveals just how mature and talented she has become over the years. Her body is commanding at all times, even more so when she is covered only in thin fabric or nothing at all. Some might complain about her expressionless character, but the simple performance adds to the dream-like nature that surrounds most of the film. Her most powerful moments come late in the film, revealing just how much of an emotionally fragile girl Lucy really is. Her performance is wonderfully complimented by the elegant Rachael Blake, who plays the kind and wary madam magnificently.
As unsettling and pessimistic as Sleeping Beauty might be, it, unfortunately, borders on the ridiculous at times. One can’t help but let out a slight laugh or smirk — just as Lucy did — at the words, “Your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina will be a temple.” While many viewers will find the film slow and unfulfilling, others will find themselves penetrated by the interesting and disquieting topics presented.