Written and Directed by Julia Leigh
The premise of Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty suggests depravity: a young and beautiful woman is drugged and “given” to a man for the night. She is paid handsomely and has no remembrance or evidence of what takes place except a groggy hangover caused by the drugs that guarantee her heavy slumber. The film skirts, perhaps a little too comfortably, around tricky issues of consent but ultimately subverts expectations from this exploitative concept.
Sleeping Beauty has been properly been described as “clinical.” It is an emotionally vacant examination of a very particular brand of sex for pay. Emily Browning stars as an exceptionally beautiful college student who works three jobs and fails to make ends meet. Finding an ad in a student paper, she applies to work as a sexy server for rich old men. When she goes for the interview, they explain her the regulations (most important, she is assured that she will never be penetrated) and is asked to strip. The boss, an elegant woman named Clara, and her trusted Thomas, examine every inch of her porcelain body. In a moment reflecting a universal distrust of beauty (whether we want to admit it or not, we have an unconscious perception of ideal beauty that no one could possibly measure up to) Thomas pauses and asks about an invisible marking on Browning’s thigh: she had a mole removed.
Part of the difficulty audiences will have with the material is the lack of titillation associated with imagery we consider implicitly erotic. Browning’s first job is as a sommelier at a private function. Dressed in revealing white lingerie, she punctuates a line-up of women with exposed breasts, short black hair slicked back and dramatic make-up. Their work is emotionless and their presence barely worth noting by the men (and woman) who have employed them for the evening. The youthfulness of their beauty contrasts heavily with the suited greyness of their older, often elderly, customers. Even in the moments before Browning leaves, as these half naked woman sit with their customers, their bodies stroked and touched lack emotion or even a note of true lechery.
The erotic set-up that Browning eventually finds herself in is very salacious. She is invited to her bosses’ home where she is asked to shower. They serve her tea with a power sleeping agent and she wakes up the next morning with no recollection or sign that it was nothing but an ordinary night’s sleep. The audience is allowed into the bedroom as Browning lies unconscious. Over the course of the film, Clara and different elderly men enter the room and sit on the bed. Clara outlines the rules and the men bare, however indirectly, their souls. The film relies on the audience’s assumption that the men have perverse and sinister intentions, though perhaps the desire to spend a night with a sleeping stranger is implicitly perverse, but Sleeping Beauty does not allow for easy judgements. Contrary to expectations these men are the ones who are afforded the most vulnerability and humanity. Their bodies, flawed and decaying, feel far more human than the frigidity of Browning’s ideal beauty. Even bursts of violence and cruelty in these sequence carry more weight and honesty then any other part of the film.
The aesthetic and tonal detachment of the film sheds moments of outward emotion in a strange light. The audiences that will be able to look past the film’s passive view of sexuality may struggle with the emotional climaxes. All the actors give strong performances, the apparent artifice of their feelings stem from the aesthetics rather than the actors. There is no range of emotions: there is passive or histrionic. This contrast is startling and at worst distracting. It punctuates two scenes in particular, and the mode of performance ultimately diverts any traditional melodramatic trapping. However, the reason behind this tonal game remains elusive.
Sleeping Beauty is a cold film, and many will walk away unmoved. Immediately following the film, I felt empty. The absurdity of the situation and the vagueness of the imagery was enough to string my attention from scene to scene, but I was neither emotionally or intellectually inspired by the film. Hours later I was still thinking about it, dwelling on throwaway moments and in particular the troubling ending. Whether or not Sleeping Beauty is a film that merely eludes to meaning it has enough strength to suggest that our relationship to our bodies and sex is more complex than Hollywood melodramas lead us to believe. The body casts into doubt the comfort of a solipsistic existence, we both fear and yearn for affirmation of each other’s subjective experience. Our physical imperfections cast into light, many of us quiver, mourning to overcome mortality.
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