Cannes 2011 Review – Sleeping Beauty

For a film titled Sleeping Beauty, there is certainly a lot of ugliness going on in the directorial debut of Australian screenwriter and novelist Julia Leigh. The film is a dark tale that is cold and distant, seeming to purposely keep the viewer at arm’s length, and it’s not an easy film to digest (certainly not at 11:00 in the morning). Combined with a protagonist who is far from sympathetic, this is a film that is sure to divide audiences.

Like any student short on money, Lucy (Emily Browning) takes any job to make ends meet. Serving as a guinea pig in a medical study is probably nothing new for a lot of students, and neither is having a part-time job at an office or waiting tables at a restaurant. Prostituting yourself in bars is, though (no exchange of money is shown, but it is implied she gets paid for it). Lucy also doesn’t mind a line of coke, some heavy drinking, and being all around rude to just about anybody. It makes for an intriguing leading character, surely when it becomes clear her behavior is a defense mechanism. The only scenes in which Lucy opens up and shows emotions are the ones where she’s alone with the only person she seems to care for, an addict named Birdmann. Their relationship is an odd one, but there is real warmth in their exchanges, something lacking in Lucy’s other conversations.

Lucy accepts a job for an agency that caters to people who have different ideas of what a dinner party should be. She has to pour drinks in her underwear, while other even more scantily clad girls serve the food and perform other duties (one scene clearly evokes Pasolini’s Salò). After a few of these parties, she is promoted to the titular role of a sleeping beauty. Upon drinking a heavy sedative, she falls into a deep sleep, and when she wakes it is like those hours didn’t exist. While she’s asleep, her clients can do with her whatever they want, except penetrate her. This leads to a few scenes that are almost excruciating to watch, a downward spiral of depravity accentuating the total surrender of control by Lucy. Control or lack thereof is a theme that permeates the whole film. A story told by one of Lucy’s clients clearly connects playing one’s role in life and the control over one’s own destiny. The fact that it is told straight into the camera may be a stylistic trick, but it underlines the message all the more.

Ever since the news broke that this film was to be in competition and the trailer was released, people have commented (positively) on the look of the film. And with reason, because the film looks absolutely stunning. Shots are very carefully composed and lit, to the point where it becomes highly stylized. This effect is heightened by the casting of Emily Browning in the lead role. With her alabaster skin and doll-like facial features, she perfectly fits the mold she is cast in by her employer (a very controlled performance by Rachael Blake). This is a revelatory part for Browning, who’s probably best known for the over-the-top action flick Sucker Punch earlier this year. It is a demanding role that has her in almost every frame of the film, but she passes with flying colors. Her cold and matter-of-fact demeanor in most scenes is contrasted with some very emotional moments in her scenes with Birdmann, and she sells them both. This film surely has me interested to see what Browning does next.

Julia Leigh has crafted a stunning debut that is not only a feast for the eyes and ears (the subtle sound design should not go unmentioned), but that also prods the intelligence. It goes to some very dark places, and doesn’t make it easy for the viewer (the contrast in this respect to Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris on opening night could not be greater), but this is not a film that will be soon forgotten. For a debut film, Sleeping Beauty raises expectations for further work by this director. She has not made things easy for herself by tackling the topic in such a dark and highly sexual and sensual way, as it will alienate part of her public, but it is a bold opening move by a talent to watch. Highly recommended.