Acclaimed director Jane Campion (The Piano) presents Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty, a fascinating depiction of a young woman’s reckless decent into a shocking world of erotic desires. Lucy (Emily Browning in a breakthrough performance) is a young university student whose sexual exploits are driven by whim and endured with an utter passivity. When she answers an ad in the student newspaper for a lingerie waitress, she is secretly initiated into the job of a Sleeping Beauty, for which she is sedated and given to her male clients in total sexual submission. As this unnerving experience begins to bleed into her daily life, Lucy develops the courage to break the spell and discover what happens to her while she sleeps. An official selection at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
eyelights: Emily Browning’s commitment to the part. the unusual story. the atmospheric score.
eyesores: the awkward fade outs.
Sometimes not knowing is more terrible than knowing. There are times when one’s imagination will fill in the blanks for us in sinister ways, where reality is much more acceptable than what we imagine, due lack of information. Parents likely know this best, always worrying about their kids for lack of knowledge about what is actually going on.
‘Innocence‘ was a prime example of this effect, of ambiguity and tone being the primary force of one’s interpretation – of one’s pre-conceived notions and fears colouring what one is seeing. ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is another.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ is the story of Lucy, a young student who is paying her way through university with various odd jobs. She has rented a room with (what appears to be) a friend and her boyfriend and leads an otherwise unremarkable life, her only social contact being her friend, Birdmann, a drug addict who’s falling off the wagon for the umpteenth time.
Lucy appears emotionally vacant, expressing very little except to Birdmann, with whom she shares an unusual bond and dynamic: they proceed with fake formalities followed by expressions of love such as marriage proposals, but remain platonic friends. It was unclear, but I got the impression that he was gay, but mildly bicurious, and that they were more like an old couple than anything else.
We soon discover that, beyond the limited surface expressions, Lucy has not a care in the world, and may very well be amoral: she lies to her boss, her roommates, and her mother (in a brazen display of deceit, in front of her immediate supervisor) at will, doesn’t balk at doing hard drugs, will sleep with strangers with few questions asked, …etc.
She is also a test subject for a lab. Even though she goes through extremely uncomfortable situations, such as having to insert tubes down her throat into her stomach, she is up for anything. So it’s no wonder that she is unfazed when she is interviewed for a silver service gig that involves serving food in lingerie for groups of rich men and women.
By this point we know that Lucy is fearless, perhaps even reckless. It doesn’t come as a surprise that she would allow her new employers to prod and examine her like cattle. When she is explained the stringent and mysterious (if not dubious) terms by which she would be employed, one has little doubt that she isn’t worried – she doesn’t even seem to care.
When they hire her for a more demanding gig, she doesn’t ask many questions. She is to drink tea with a soporific agent in it, after which she will lie in bed, naked, for clients. She will not know what happens whilst asleep, but she is assured that there will not be any penetration. The pay is superb, so she takes it at face value and accepts the deal.
There is some emotional damage there: her mom has psychiatric problems and frequently tracks Lucy down to ask her for money. When Lucy gives her a fake credit card number, we realize that their relationship is beyond repair – Lucy just wants to get her mom out of the picture, to be left alone. What appears as aloofness are really layers of emotional distancing, for protection.
Lucy doesn’t appear happy, but she doesn’t appear unhappy either. If anything, she moves through her life almost stunned, as though in the aftermath of some traumatic event. She isn’t self-destructing, nor is she in a tail-spin, but she is a ghost in her own life, going through the motions without anything touching her nor her touching anything else.
This was highlighted by the filmmaking, in that writer-director Julia Leigh sometimes gave us snippets of Lucy’s life without explanation or dialogue: fade in, fade out, next scene. In some ways It made me wonder if she knew what to do with the scenes, but on some levels I’m sure it was done to illustrate how Lucy is sort of floating through her life.
The music also sustains this impression, being very atmospheric. It was a lovely little soundscape, but it wasn’t dramatic in any way; it was content to fill the space, to let the scenes speak for themselves, embellishing them subtly in its own way. I guess it was as emotionless as Lucy was, nuanced to the Nth degree and never ever dictating to us.
In some ways I could understand the character of Lucy, even though I don’t relate to her: sometimes it’s just easier to remove one’s self when coping with things that are not agreeable to us. How she subsists in this matter daily, is beyond me, however; one would imagine that it would take a toll on her. Come to think of it, perhaps she goes to extremes precisely for this reason: to feel something.
‘Sleeping Beauty’ took on an aura of mystery, and even eeriness. One could never know what Lucy would do next, of course, something which can be off-putting, but the moment that she began her new gig we were exposed to a strange new world – one that likely exists somewhere, but that we’re not privileged enough to partake in.
Personally, I found it slightly surreal to watch these carefree men and women have their soirée together, catered to by half-naked women as though this were normal. The after-dinner drinks were even more unusual, with some of the women in balled-up in strange positions on the floor while these wealthy people made small-talk and drank.
Even weirder were the “sleeping beauty” sessions, which involved a number of individual clients of a certain age. What do they do in that time? What are they paying for, exactly, if not sex? Why does Lucy have to be asleep for this arrangement to benefit them? And why would Lucy agree to this? The setting, a large Kubrickian room, adds to the enigma.
For me, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ fell somewhere in the vicinity of ‘Belle de Jour‘, ‘Eyes Wide Shut’, ‘Topâzu‘, ‘Histoire d’O‘ or even ‘Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma’. It felt grey, but intriguing, as though one were thrown into an alien life that will always remain alien. And fittingly, so: Lucy is an alien in her own life, a sleeping beauty in an existence that is filled with experiences she doesn’t feel.
Date of viewing: September 9. 2013