Sleeping Beauty: Julia Leigh’s Tale (Cannes Film Fest 2011)

Cannes Film Fest 2011 (World Premiere, in Competition)–Australian novelist Julia Leigh makes a curious but fascinating transition to moviemaking with her flawed though suggestive and visually accomplished Sleeping Beauty.

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 on. She compensates with some lovely directorial flourishes.

Sundance Selections acquired the movie’s US distribution rights after its world premiere in the competition series of the 2011 Cannes Film Fest, where it received mixed reviews by critics.

Her story about a beautiful though damaged young woman entrapped in the slippery world of high-end sex worker, the movie shows compelling linkage with French director Catherine Breillat’s The Sleeping Beauty. Both are about power, sexuality and mythmaking. The critical difference is that Leigh’s version is deliberately anti-erotic.

Despite a fearless and impressive performance by young actress Emily Browning, the sex here is anything but fun, glamorous, sensual or liberating. It’s brutish and debasing. The conception and power of the performance strikes the right chords of frailty, skittishness and brazen empowerment.

It’s sex as a purely transactional endeavor. When Lucy (Browning), the young college student whose brought to the attention of the madam (Rachael Blake) that operates the high-end 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, she says.

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.”

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

Rigorously framed and shot by the excellent cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, Leigh rarely moves the camera. She prefers long takes from a fixed perspective. In the rare times 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 by 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.

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.

By Patrick Z. McGavin