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47th Chicago Film Festival: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ so emotionally distant as to evoke no response

Sleeping Beauty

Written and directed by Julia Leigh

Australia, 2011

Much like Melancholia, this is another review I find difficulty in writing, but for completely different reasons.

Whereas Melancholia left me feeling a range of things, Sleeping Beauty leaves me feeling…nothing. It’s a cold and nihilistic film, choosing emotional disconnect in an interesting attempt at presenting the ideas at work. And that decision is what cements Sleeping Beauty as a glorious failure.

Sleeping Beauty is the story of Lucy, a young college girl who’s drawn into a new world when she takes a job as a prostitute. Whenever she’s with a client, she drinks a sleeping potion that knocks her out completely. And once she’s out, the men have their way with her. It’s a story that should be shocking, but somehow, it isn’t.

The biggest issue is that it’s hard to walk away from a film with any sort of conveyed message or even shock when it hasn’t offered the possibility of connection. Yes, this feels like a deliberate choice, and it’s actually clear to see why anyone would make it. But it’s all so far removed from anything it could be offering that it becomes an overly unpleasant experience to view it. It was never going to be a joyous occasion, but the film we’ve been given is unnecessarily bland.

In its choice to be distant, it tosses out an intriguing concept in favor of tedium. The scenes, done in single-shots, are visually striking at times but ultimately become dull, and make you hunger for something more, even if it’s just a cut to a medium shot. And the story plays out less like a fully realized film, and more like a series of vignettes that have been put together in the hopes that something will come of it. It never truly flows, and as a result it only contributes to the disconnect that’s already bringing it down.

But Sleeping Beauty isn’t without its saving graces. As I said before, it can be visually striking at times, and Emily Browning gives a fine performance. Unfortunately, the nihilistic approach to the film is still so heavy that both of these things are almost completely lost. You have to watch with a keen eye; otherwise it’s far too easy to miss.

And if nothing else, Sleeping Beauty does get points for its ambition. It’s meticulously crafted, with every choice made having some sort of purpose. But with a film this emotionally distant it becomes hard to discern just what those are. Perhaps the key to gaining a true appreciation for it lies in another viewing, but it never gives a good enough reason to explore it further. It’s an unfortunate example of a film’s greatest artistic tool becoming it’s own undoing. It’s too cold for it’s own good, and as a result it never feels worth the time it took to watch it.

– William Bitterman

The Chicago Film Festival runs from October 6th-20th. Visit the festival’s official home page.