Sleeping Beauty by Julia Leigh

Sundance Selects–IFC

Australian novelist Julia Leigh makes a strange but nonetheless intrguing transition to moviemaking with “Sleeping Beauty,” her flawed though quite suggestive and provocative feature.

(This film should not be confused with the French film, “Sleeping Beauty,” directed by Catherine Breillat).


Part of what makes the film unusual is that Leigh shows far greater facility visually and formally than she does with the idiom of moviemaking.  The talk is heightened and stylized in a manner that does not always feel right–or authentic.  Aware or unaware of the problem, Leigh compensates with some lovely directorial flourishes.


The entrepreneurial Sundance Selects acquired the movie’s U.S. distribution rights after its world premiere in the competition series of the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, where it received mixed reviews and divided international critics.  Thus, similar divisive reaction should be expected from American critics upon the film’s release. 


Leigh’s story concerns a beautiful though damaged young woman entrapped in the slippery world of high-end sex worker.  As such, the new movie makes for a compelling linkage with French director Catherine Breillat’s “The Sleeping Beauty” (which was released in the U.S. by Strand).   Both films are about power, sexuality and mythmaking.  However, the critical difference is that Leigh’s version is deliberately anti-erotic.


Despite a fearless and impressive performance by the young actress Emily Browning, the sex here is anything but fun, glamorous, sensual or liberating.  It’s brutish and debasing as befits its sordid milieu.  The strength of the performance resides in estbalishing the right chords of frailty, skittishness and brazen empowerment.


The movie depicts sex as a purely commercial and transactional enterprise.  When Lucy (Emily Browning) the young college student is brought to the attention of the madam (Rachael Blake) that operates the upscale bordello, the older woman sternly cautions her: “Whatever you do, don’t think of this as a career.  Make your money, pay off your debts and get out fast.”  It proves to be a pragmatic, if difficult, advise.


Given her background, the writer of two acclaimed works of fiction, most prominently “The Hunter,“ Leigh has talked about various literary influences of her first movie: Yasunari Kawabata’s “House of the Sleeping Beauties” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores.”


But it seems very clear that the film is also shaped by two masterpieces of movie modernism: Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” and Luis Bunuel’s “Belle de Jour.” Like the landmark 1975 Akerman film, “Sleeping Beauty” is shaped around process and routine. Leigh hammers the monotony of the interior life of her protagonist, the off-center, inchoate college student.


The film is rigorously framed and shot by the excellent cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, and Leigh rarely moves the camera.  Instead, she opts for rather long takes from a fixed perspective.  In the rare times that she does move the camera, the effect is devastating, like a moment midway through the film where the camera pulls back from the nighthawk skyline, where Lucy is naked, asleep in bed.  The angle and movement are a piercing reminder of the unusual remunerative benefits of her job.


The camera is present, but never distracted. It’s also never passive. Leigh is studying behavior and action, and underlining the cause and effect of her plunge to a strange otherworld. Estranged from her alcoholic mother, Lucy is taking classes at a local university. She works a couple of dead-end jobs, an assistant at a weirdly unpopulated corporate office and a hostess at a coffee bar and restaurant.


She apprentices for the big job by appearing, in an elaborate performance of a make believe virgin decked out in naughty lingerie who backs up a chorus line of dark-eyed beauties who serve a group of wealthy elderly men fancy French dishes and expensive wines in topless outré uniforms. For good measure, the women also avail themselves in sexually debased positions, making the similar orgies from Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” appear fairly liberating and progressive.

With Lucy now living in the posh apartment and needed to jack up her income, she agrees to the more lucrative stake of high end prostitution, with a twist. She is drugged, placed in bed by her female handler and the older, clearly damaged clients are repeatedly told they are strictly prohibited from vaginal sex.


“Sleeping Beauty” might be considered y some as a feminist tract or a subversive piece of pop art.  But it is rather an intelligent and thoughtful consideration of the anarchic and combustible intermingling of sex and control. The older men are largely pathetic and detestable, but Leigh allows one sharp and compelling act of confession from a prized client (Peter Carroll) that’s a bit of a showstopper though effective all the same.


Unlike Zach Snyder in his risible “Sucker Punch,” Leigh actually demands a performance out of the gifted Browning. It’s a startling performance, alternating between tragedy and a wistful self-recognition of who and what she has become.

Browning responds with some remarkable work, dancing on the edge of desire, voyeurism and complicity. She’s beautiful, and fearless in what shows about herself. The movie works because of its refusal to provide easy answers. Lucy is deliberately unmoored; the movie “Sleeping Beauty” is sharp and compelling at navigating that inner and outer space.


The formal style constantly invites us to watch and look over Lucy until the movie’s chilling denouement. “Sleeping Beauty” is a curious work, both cold and intuitive about human nature and primal needs. Most important, it sets the stage for two gifted new creative talents, the filmmaker Leigh and the bold Browning.


This essay is co-written by Patrick Z. McGavin and Emanuel Levy