Monday, June 13, 2011

SFF Review: Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 2011)

Living in Sydney sure is tough for Lucy (Emily Browning), a young, beautiful university student. This is especially true for someone who alienates herself from her university colleagues, and so explicitly refuses to conform to healthy social practices as she does. Lucy is on her own. As we discover later in the film, her mother is an abusive alcoholic, so Lucy is trying to pay for her university tuition by working a series of unfulfilling and low-paying professions.

Splitting her time between her work as a waitress at a restaurant, as an office assistant, and as a guinea-pig in medical tests, Lucy also drinks heavily, uses hard drugs and is often out the entire night consorting with dubious individuals and partaking in one night stands. Struggling to pay her rent, as her aggressive housemate frequently reminds her, the only place she finds peace is the home of her depressed and ill friend, Birdmann, where they live out his strange desires.


Desperate for money, and after spotting an add in the student paper, she decides to further utilise her unique beauty and accepts an invitation to the house of the elegant Clara (Rachael Blake), the Madame who runs an exclusive lingerie club, which doubles as a high-end prostitution business. The club services the affairs of wealthy (and elderly) clientele, with the girls working as scantily clad waitresses at a classy Chateau. But more strange, intimate encounters (and more degrading work) is on offer for Lucy, if she is consensual.

Drawn into a discreet world of beauty and desire, Lucy takes on the name of Sara, is administered a sleep-inducing drug, and remains unconscious while lonely old men are free to do what they like. This is with the exception of one thing - penetration. Julia Leigh's film has an ice cold aesthetic but through Geoffrey Simpson's effective photography it is very often beautiful. Lucy's 'fantasy world' has a surreal otherworldly atmosphere and the narrative progresses at a slow, meditative and curious pace.


As an Official Selection for the Cannes Film Festival, this was one of my most anticipated films of the Sydney Film Festival. I couldn't help but feel that the film is unsure of what it is trying to convey. Challenging the audience to process the demise of his unlikable, emotionally distant protagonist, it is difficult to fathom; one - that this world actually exists, and two - that someone would be willing to put themselves through these traumas. It is quite repulsive.

Awful dialogue, and some ponderous metaphors seemed amateurish, not to mention an obsession with fade to black transitions. These worked to order the events like short chapters, with the film's entire structure and sensuous atmosphere evidently influenced by Leigh's background as a novelist. I tried to tie the old man's monologue into Lucy's own tale, but found it puzzling and couldn't make the connection. A closer look at the films smaller details (the fact that on one occasion she pulls out a UWS student card when she obviously attends The University of Sydney, the ridiculous method Lucy has for wiping the tables, and the impossible ease she accrues a new apartment - trust me, in Sydney, it's very difficult) only makes one shake their head.


Emily Browning's performance is good, and brave to say the least. Following her role in the awful Sucker Punch, where she also works to fulfil male fantasies, she takes on far more risky challenges here. She has this gorgeous luminosity and is very captivating. And naked. Lots. Sleeping Beauty is highly erotic sexual nightmare, and the divisive controversy it has caused following its Cannes screening is certainly understandable. Nearly oblivious to the world around her anyway, Lucy chooses to be drugged and violated in a state that keeps her oblivious to her treatment; so that she is paid to continue to survive in a state of oblivion. Pretty much.

While it falls short of satisfying, mostly due to lack of recognised purpose, this is largely a unique vision. Sleeping Beauty remains ambitious and bold, if evidently influenced by the works of Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut)Luis Bunuel and Michael Haneke. There are lots of lengthy one-take dialogic exchanges captured by a stationary camera (often situated directly in front of the characters, capturing them in a medium/long shot). This tedious, but no doubt intentional, technique results in the film slipping into repetitive groove. While I will probably never watch this film again, I was compelled throughout. It is certainly one of the more ambitious (and unsettling) films you will see in an Australian cinema this year, but it's far from a successful one.

My Rating: 2 1/2 Stars (C-)

6 comments:

  1. Emily Browning is so beautiful - cant wait for the official release in cinemas :)

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  2. So is it best to wait for the film when it's available online? I'm intrigued by this film although I'm not entirely surprised by the mixed reviews. I liked Emily Browning in that Lemony Snickets movie even though that was a terrible film. I didn't care for her in Sucker Punch which would've been a total disaster if it wasn't for Jena Malone and Abbie Cornish.

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  3. I think it is still worth seeing in the cinema. It's quite an intoxicating experience. Browning is great. Forget Sucker Punch...even with those two giving it a go, it was still a disaster.

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  4. If it reminded you of "Eyes Wide Shut" than I'm certainly excited.

    Good review Andy.

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  5. I have been reading mixed reviews on this one. People really seem to be divided on the content. Still your review has me intrigued, I may have to keep an eye out for this one.

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  6. @ CS - It definitely is worth seeing. I'm not surprised it has polarised people. It is a very strange film, and the content is really quite repulsive. Though tedious and repetitive at times, and not especially thrilling, it does keep you captivated throughout.

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