Sleeping Beauty: Cannes Review

Sleeping Beauty - Movie Still: Rachael Blake and Emily Browning - 2011
Cannes Film Festival
Soporific in every sense.

Emily Browning stars in director-screenwriter Julia Leigh's debut feature about a young woman who goes into high-end prostitution.

“You will go to sleep; you will wake up. It will be as if those hours never existed.” That quote from the Australian feature Sleeping Beauty is part of the job description of an emotionally detached young woman who drifts into high-end prostitution involving no actual sex. Regrettably, it could also describe the experience of watching the movie.

In 1989, Jane Campion’s first feature, Sweetie, was unveiled in the Cannes competition to a largely hostile reception. But when the knee-jerk dismissals subsided, the passionate defenders of that idiosyncratic vision of a dysfunctional family in the Australian suburbs were vindicated, establishing Campion as a distinctive new voice in international filmmaking. Campion’s name appears as a presenter on promotional materials -- though not on the titles -- of Sleeping Beauty, the debut feature from novelist Julia Leigh. But while this psychosexual twaddle will no doubt have its admirers, it seems a long shot to attract a significant following or herald the arrival of a director to watch.

The endorsement of a past Palme d’Or winner (Campion took the top Cannes prize in 1993 for The Piano) probably helped secure writer-director Leigh’s film this prestigious berth. But such prime placement can be a disservice. Cannes audiences tend to be more forgiving in sections geared to emerging talent, like Un Certain Regard or Directors Fortnight. Outside the glare of competition, even this pretentious exercise might have earned some appreciation for its rigorously cold aesthetic.

An anti-erotic fairytale, the film is a ponderous muddle of literary and cinematic allusions. Leigh acknowledges novellas by Yasunari Kawabata and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as loose starting points, but Georges Bataille also comes to mind, as do films from Belle du Jour to Eyes Wide Shut. It almost feels like one of those middle-class gutter odysseys to which Isabelle Huppert might have lent her commanding intensity a decade or so ago. (These tales of alienated Alices tumbling down the rabbit hole of extreme sex do tend to seem slightly less ludicrous in French.)

Leigh casts Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) as Lucy, a disaffected waif whose existential malaise steers her like a zombie through college classes, hookups in singles bars and thankless jobs, from office worker to waitress to medical lab test patient. Answering an advertisement seeking attractive young women, Lucy is inspected by Carla (Rachael Blake), a regal blonde matron with a client list of well-heeled old geezers. “Your vagina will be a temple,” Carla coolly informs Lucy in one of the script’s more unfortunate lines, indicating that penetration is off limits.

Outfitted in skimpy white undergarments Lucy goes to work with a team of waitresses in black bustiers and bondage gear. She pours booze at private dinner parties while guests mutter over their brandy about her creamy complexion. Carla, however, is quietly auditioning Lucy for her house specialty – the Sleeping Beauty Chamber. Knocked out with a potion, Lucy is put to bed in a room of Carla’s isolated mansion, where clients get a night alone with her.

While none of this acquires much dramatic urgency, the film’s exploration of submission, violation, objectification and depersonalization is treated with the utmost solemnity, its sterile surfaces undisturbed by even a ripple of humor. Leigh draws vague parallels between the customers’ treatment of Lucy’s passive body (tender, cruel, fumbling) and her own inadequate responses to the suffering and physical decline of her friend Birdmann (Ewen Leslie). But her curiosity to know what happens during her comatose nights gets the better of her, finally breaking down her emotional wall. 

There’s almost a somnambulistic quality to Browning’s performance that makes you curious to know how Lucy became so anesthetized. But Leigh’s cryptic clues are stubbornly and self-consciously elusive, leaving the character’s potential complexity untapped. Visually, too, the film remains uninvolving, its glacial pacing further slowed by exceedingly sparing camera movement, resulting in a look that's neither sensual nor unsettling.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Sales: UTA (U.S.), eOne Films International
Production companies: Screen Australia, Magic Films, in association with Screen NSW, Deluxe Australia, Spectrum Films, Big Ear Productions
Cast: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood
Director-screenwriter: Julia Leigh
Producer: Jessica Brentnall
Executive producers: Alan Cardy, Jamie Hilton, Tim White

Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson

Production designer: Annie Beauchamp

Music: Ben Frost

Costume designer: Shareen Beringer

No rating; 102 minutes