The last film I can remember having left me feeling as puzzled and intrigued as Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty was Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. I would go on to see Eyes Wide Shut at least 10 times and write an in-depth seminar paper in grad school using the psycho-analytic theory of Jacques Lacan to illuminate the film’s message and finally gain an appreciation for it. I still have not grown tired of that film, which too many have simply brushed aside as Kubrick’s weakest. I’d call it a masterpiece.
But that’s another article, and though I would not consider Sleeping Beauty as existing on the same level as Eyes Wide Shut, I can understand why critics are so similarly divided on it as they were with Eyes Wide Shut when it came out. When Warner Bros. released Eyes Wide Shut in 1999, just before Kubrick’s death, the director had long achieved the status of one of the handful of true master filmmakers whose influence and regard was guaranteed to last throughout the history of cinema. Sleeping Beauty, however, is Leigh’s first film, and though she proves her skill at handling mystery* in a story, which she also wrote, the film falls just short of the transcendentalism of Kubrick or another filmmaker well know for his mysterious quality, David Lynch. That said, Leigh still has much to offer in abstract, eerie atmosphere in this odd psycho-sexual tale of the darker corners of humanity, and, if she goes on to direct more films, I can see critics re-evaluating this movie more favorably in hindsight.
The film follows Lucy (Emily Browning) on a path into prostitution in order to makes ends meet. We first meet her in a laboratory as she volunteers to swallow a medical device on a long cable. She chokes it back centimeter by centimeter, fighting one gag reflex after another as a young man in a lab coat (Jamie Timony) assures her she is doing great.
It’s a twisted set up that brazenly foreshadows the clinical and sexual film that lies ahead. The film establishes that Lucy is studying at a university and cannot keep up with the rent while struggling at jobs in the copy room of an office and waiting tables at a cafe. She is probably taking part in a medical study for some extra cash too. Oh, and she also dabbles in sexual favors for money at a bar and abuses cocaine.
This is all quickly established in several, efficient, stagey scenes, with the camera mostly at a distance, fetishsizing props, like rows of stacked chairs on tables at the cafe during closing time and neat rows of tables in the lab, which has almost symmetrically equal equipment on each side of the screen. Lucy and the other characters stand mostly fully framed in the shots with distance between them, as they speak in curt sentences laden with shared history.
This odd pacing is always interesting, set among one dazzling staged backdrop after another. The surreal atmosphere grows more heightened when Lucy answers an ad for work as a “model.” Following a brief interview in a wood-paneled office with Clara (Rachael Blake) about Lucy’s sex and health, the woman that will be her madame orders her to strip. As a man (Eden Falk) examines her limbs, Clara assures her that in this job, “your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina is your temple.”
The distinctive, clinical but warm art direction, the film’s steady pacing, the slow and delicate zooms and pans of the camera and the mysterious dialogue between the characters are all elements Leigh seems to make her own and serve the ominous mood of the film well. A still image of the scene described above, indeed captures the meticulous quality of Leigh’s mise-en-scene:
From the actors in the foreground, their postures, faces, hairstyles, not to mention their dress, coupled with the dynamic contrasts of background, the image breathes forth an evocative quality typical of the movie. Throughout the film, as events grow more twisted, even the distant camera does not detract from the chilling action.
Leigh is a certain kind of storyteller, one who has immense faith in her audience, offering an almost abstract experience of story that invites viewers to bring their baggage to the proceedings. Before this movie, Leigh had already established herself as a novelist of high regard. Her debut novel, the Hunter (1999), did a heck of a job to put her on the literary map, bringing her praise and awards from across the world. The Australia-based writer only recently followed it up with the 2008 novella, Disquiet, a book I happened to have read over the course of a single weekend a couple of years ago. I can personally speak to an odd surreal quality and economic power to Leigh’s prose that is also on full display in this, her first movie.
If there are short comings in Sleeping Beauty, it comes when fleshed out characters fail to materialize, as those that populate the world of Sleeping Beauty seem to walk through it in a haze of mystery that overshadows any insight to their individual motivations. For some reason, Lucy chooses to burn her first hundred-dollar bill she earns. For someone set up as so desperate for money, the effort seems a costly over-symbolic move that contradicts her actions, including a moment when she pleads for more work from Clara. In conversation with Clara, one of the elderly men who sleeps with Lucy (Peter Carroll) gives a rambling monologue that does not seem to add much of anything to the film. The director seems more in tuned with the female characters than the men and would have done just as well to leave them alone as the tools they are in the machinations of the story.
These ambiguous scenes (and there can be more or less of them, depending on the viewer) can be a detriment for those searching for story, but I would posit something beyond story rises above these shortcomings. This is the stuff of female nightmares. Imagine taking a potion that puts you to sleep with no memory or even dreams, laying down naked in a bed, where you know men have paid to be in your presence to do anything they want so long as they do not leave a mark or penetrate you. That is the job Lucy has signed up for, and what happens in the various scenes with three different men varies, but all send shivers down the spine. In the interest of the power of imagination, I shall spare the details, for there is nothing like the shock of the unfolding proceedings as Lucy submits her nude body to the whims of these old, damaged men, one of the angriest of whom admits to Clara the only thing that can get him an erection nowadays anyway is if a woman used her fingers to penetrate him.
Browning deserves a special award for acting while limp. She never flinches while her character suffers extreme abuse by these men. No doubt as there are some who will be left disturbed, others might feel turned on. However, the innocuousness of the set design and the calm movements of the camera, be they slow zooms, pans or tilts— are all patient, gradual and pregnant with audience implication (or director’s) gaze. Any sexuality is couched in voyeurism. There are no thrusts when Lucy works, and, as Clara tells all the men who “sleep” with her girl, “no penetration.” This is not a film that celebrates or exploits the female body. It repels just as much as it titillates, recalling a similar statement film by another great surrealist director: David Cronenberg, the aptly titled A History of Violence.
Though the elusive quality of the film does seem to get in the way of an unshakably definitive statement, Leigh offers a strong reach that recalls Lynch without coming across as a blatant copier. The amount of Lynch imitators (not that she is one directly or consciously) often steer their train way off the tracks and brew up embarrassing stupidities of films (I guess many of which I have thankfully forgotten). The calm and control of Sleeping Beauty save it from becoming another one of those movies.
This elusive line where transcendence occurs in a film is difficult to define without close examination of a filmmaker’s technique. Kubrick, Lynch and Cronenberg are all master craftsmen with an almost superhuman insight into the human psyche, and rare is the film in their oeuvre that does not deliver. As for Sleeping Beauty, the moments of shock that arrive hit at a gut level, tapping deep into the unconscious, the source of nightmares. Though Leigh does not really hit the subtle note for true primal chills and a grand end statement, she comes close. But even without a powerful, final moment of transcendence (and the film tries for one), the techniques in story, pace, art direction, camera work and characterization shows Leigh has all the right moves. Sleeping Beauty maintains an ominous sense of abstract but riveting mystery reeking of sexuality that will keep the adventurous viewer hooked.
Sleeping Beauty is rated R, runs 101 min., and opens in South Florida Friday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review, and the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, on the same day and time.
*As far as the word “mystery” in cinema, do not expect a whodunit type of film. Sleeping Beauty concerns itself with the darkest, most primal drives of sex.