“Some people fake their deaths. I’m faking my life.”
Do not let the title of this Australian erotic drama mislead you. Ten seconds into the trailer, you will be ushered into a Kubrick/Lanthimos world that has nothing to do with Disney, or Perrault’s medieval fairy tale. It is actually more of a contemporary ‘curse’ befallen a poor, young student, according to the novelist-turned-director Julia Leigh. The Australian director’s 2011 debut draws inspiration from her own dreams, as well as Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961) in terms of its setting and behavioural rules. The focus is aesthetically placed on the doll-like lead Emily Browning (Sucker Punch, Golden Exits), and her passive horror story of slumber.
Young Lucy (Emily Browning) is a student juggling various part-time jobs to make ends meet, while caring for her sick friend Birdmann (Ewen Leslie). In need of more money, she responds to a classified newspaper ad seemingly for a lingerie model. The real job, though, entails working in a niche establishment run by elegant Clara (Rachael Blake). Though she starts off as a waitress for old, rich men, she quickly gets promoted. After a meticulous beauty treatment and refinement, Lucy agrees to be drugged in order to sleep next to her male customers. They must always follow two simple rules: no penetration, no marks. Lucy becomes further anesthetized, never imaging where sleep might take her.
The topic examined by Leigh is not an easy one to digest, just like the balloon Lucy swallows in the beginning of the film – perhaps the only penetrative act on screen. The erotic scenes, which have very little to do with sex, deliver a direct blow to the stomach in a cold, impassive way. As a matter of fact, the first part of Sleeping Beauty sets the stage for a Freudian explanation of the first stage of psycho-sexual development, which promises a dark, dry finale. However, somewhere along the road, the plot begins to wobble, missing out on its opportunity to revel in irony and dive into the changes occurring in Lucy’s character, subtle as they may be.
Since its premiere at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Sleeping Beauty has been either praised as an art-house cinematic experience, or slammed for its over-the-top approach, long shots, emotionless interactions, and a lack of consistency or motives. However, Browning and Blake deliver their parts in the most convincing way. The dreamy posh furniture and paintings will make your stomach twist a bit more while you are desperately waiting for Lucy to react and provide culmination to the narrative.
Prostitution among university students, as well as perverted sexual habits exhibiting power and control instead of eroticism, are not new topics to be explored in art. Leigh chooses symmetrical takes reminding one of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), while there are also cinematic components referring to Pasolini’s violent Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), as well as Buñuel’s surrealism in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972).
The originality of this film lies perhaps in its utterly detached protagonist, leaving us with a sense of hollowness and inability to process this example of portrayed reality. However, upon serious reflection, it may be that the film serves as a critique of the modern standards of sexual conduct and impassive interactions. For all we know, the film doesn’t aim to shock or inform in any way, but rather force us to face our reactions to its unsettling scenes.
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