Let’s get things out of the way right at the top: this Sleeping Beauty has nothing to do with the animated Disney masterpiece. Nor is it a post-modernist, revisionist gloss on the classic fairytale. Nor does it have any real connection to the recent film of the same name by French provocateur Catherine Breillat—their contemporaneous release seems to have been purely coincidental, and doesn’t seem to point to some sort of culturally subconscious necessity of whatever supercharged psychological baggage the title Sleeping Beauty evokes and dredges up. You know….unless it does, unless it is, like the best fairytales, ripe with subtext, and allusion, and symbolism; unless it is, like the best fairytales, a shortcut to darker truths that can’t be admitted with plain language.
Or maybe it really is just as vacant as it really appears on first pass; maybe Sleeping Beauty is, like its heroine, an empty vessel, unworthy of any critical unpacking. I don’t really know what to make—or if “making” is even the point—of this odd, chilly, yet hypnotically compelling film, and I suspect that reaction is fairly typical, and is probably the “nonpoint” point. Australian novelist turned first time filmmaker Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty offers nothing in the way of clarity—no clues, no answers, nothing other than its own inscrutable, impenetrable self.
To be sure, it’s a singular and strange film, one of the most confounding things I’ve seen in recent memory, a film that deflects any sort of rigorous critical take. It’s simple, fable-like narrative trajectory—tracing the travails of Lucy (Emily Browning), a desperate young college student who resorts to (a weird sort of) prostitution to keep her head above water—seems to be a fairly obvious, and heavy-handed, castigation of the male gaze and desire, and the male imposed socio-economic strictures that lead a woman to submit to them. Done and done, easy to get a handle on, right?
Except that the prostitution trope, and the sort of typical outrage it is meant to evoke, is broken off at a weird angle. Lucy works for a prim, genteel madam, whose one overarching rule for her clients with regard to her girls is “no penetration”. Turns out, Lucy is offered up to these men in a drug induced, catatonic state, knocked out cold by a special herbal tea. Lying naked in a large, luxurious bed, she is insensate as a parade of wealthy, elderly, decrepit men spends the night with her, night after night, performing all manner of outrages on her limp, lifeless body… well, except anything even remotely sexual. In the morning, she is ferried home, ignorant of anything that transpired except that she slept.
These episodes, which make up the last half of the film, are unsettling, pathetic, and oddly (if very darkly) humorous. Lucy becomes a totem for these men seeking some sort of vial of youth, like nestling up to her will restore some lost vitality—or she is just a ragdoll to be abused, there to absorb a lifetime of frustration. The whole “nonpenetration” thing lends the whole proceedings a tinge of unbelievability, but also heightens the surreality of it all, like the film is operating on a different plane from our dirtier reality.
It’s also a clue that Lucy herself—as character and idea—and the film will remain impenetrable to any sort of explication. She is a blank, but also a potential well of transcendent carnality, always kept out of reach behind the veil of sleep. The lack of sex only supercharges the latent eroticism of the film, veering it off into a darker, inchoate depth of desire and lust that can only be hinted at, if even on the surface nothing seems to be happening at all.
With the film so stagnantly soporific otherwise, Leigh is fortunate that for her centerpiece she has the genuinely entrancing Emily Browning to play Lucy. In one way, it’s a perfect stroke of casting: with her flawless alabaster skin, large blue eyes, and a face that is at once highly expressive and entirely devoid of animation, Browning resembles nothing so much as a living porcelain doll, an obvious locus for male fantasies. In this way, she’s the perfect complement and vehicle for the ideas buried in the film.
So, it’s a bit sly on Leigh’s part, a bit of a subversion, using an actress whose short career so far has had her playing various iterations of a blank slate, the film doubling down on its own core conceit with the reputation of the actress used to represent it. But of course, it’s a double edged sword, because for that very same reason Leigh’s use of Browning could also be seen as reaffirming the very submissive vacuousness that she is trying to condemn.
I’ve been hoping that Browning would someday present more than she appears, that somewhere beneath her hypnotic dollface is another brilliant Australian actress ready to make her ascent. Sleeping Beauty somewhat confirms this: her performance, if it can be called such, is definitely, almost defiantly, brave. She is on screen for the entire 94-minute run time, and a good part of that she leaves herself entirely exposed, if not physically, then at least emotionally. She does her best to find the humanity in a mostly inhumanely conceived character, and so breaks the mold of her previous roles, even if superficially she seems to be consolidating that very persona. Say what you will about her acting chops, but it’s impossible to take your eyes off her, and if Sleeping Beauty succeeds at all it is mostly because of her.
Provocative and sophomoric in about equal measure, Sleeping Beauty is, like the best fairy tales, thrumming with nightmarish, subterranean dread—and is, like the worst, heavy-handed and damningly dull. All the latent, roiling tension seeping into every frame, perpetually seeking to crest the surface and turn the film into a sort of Lynchian, psychosexual dream-fugue, is kept forever at arm’s length, deflated and tamped back down with a ruthless clinical detachment that is laughably ponderous. The cumulative effect, of watching a film that is fairly bursting at the seams wrap itself ever tighter in a hermetically sealed shell, is unsettling and infinitely frustrating.
I know I’ve seen something here—well, I feelI’ve seen something—but its exact nature is obscured by a veil of opacity that is, yes, impenetrable, perhaps the better to deflect attention from its inherent emptiness.