Rating: 3.5/5Sleeping Beauty, Julia Leigh’s debut as a filmmaker, immediately recalls two films similarly depicting a young woman’s exploration of sexuality outside of heterosexual monogamy, Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour and Catherine Breillat’s Romance. These journeys beyond commonality embrace sexual objectification and submissiveness, in turn highlighting an implied split at the heart of every woman’s experience of sexuality as both subject and object. As in Buñuel’s and Breillat’s films, Sleeping Beauty features a protagonist, Lucy (Emily Browning), who leads a double life, right down to assuming a new name when she begins earning money as a sex worker. Her new job has one curious rule, reiterated throughout the film: no penetration. In this way, Lucy differs from Belle de Jour’s Séverine, who becomes a prostitute, and Romance’s Marie, who imagines becoming merely a hole after a series of increasingly degrading sexual encounters. Instead, Lucy offers her services as a “sleeping beauty,” drinking a tea that knocks her unconscious for an entire night and offering her incapacitated body as a plaything for older men. One man sleeps beside her for the night, another hurls insults at her and paws at her, while a third carries her around the room like a large sack before dumping her on the bed. Aside from the obvious contrast between these older, wealthy men and Lucy, young, beautiful and in need of money, these scenes convey unexplained mystery, almost examples of “automatic writing” spilling the contents of these clients’ unconsciousnesses directly onto Lucy’s body.
Where Belle de Jour and Romance hinted at the psychological movement, ambivalent and neither wholly productive nor destructive, that might be generated by uncommon sexuality, Sleeping Beauty seems to point toward stasis more than anything, and this suggests much about how the world and our sexual attitudes have changed over the years. Lucy earns money, but there’s little sense that she is productively exploring her own sexuality or psychology, as Buñuel’s and Breillat’s heroines did. Part of the reason for this is that Lucy is not conscious during the encounters, becoming even more a pure object than Romance’s Marie imagined. Beyond this, Sleeping Beauty suggests a sort of bleak dead end for the agency of women in contemporary society. Even the room where Lucy offers up her body appears to be a place from which no movement is possible, perhaps not even retreat. When, near the end of the film, Lucy’s madam opens a hidden panel in the room to reveal windows and the daylight outside, we are surprised to be reminded, despite knowing otherwise, that this room exists in the real world at all rather than in some otherworldly, abstract dimension like the red-curtained room in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. With its glacial zooms, dispassionate acting and affinity for symmetry, Sleeping Beauty conveys cool immobility difficult to distinguish from Lucy’s internal life. Sexuality no longer feels like a tool for growth or even rebellion, and the impotence with which Lucy’s clients regard their own mortality, reflected back to them in Lucy’s perfect skin, tends to aggressively dominate the film’s mood and tone overall.
Ironically, the only act of penetration in the whole film occurs in the first scene, where Lucy volunteers her services as lab test subject, swallowing a plastic tube in a manner that leaves Lucy’s gagging mouth agape. The scene subtly reminds us that even the ostensibly objective discipline of science has frequently positioned women as passive objects to be acted upon by men. It serves Leigh’s agenda that Lucy is herself far from perfect, oftentimes not even all that likable, because here we see the challenging complexity of female empowerment. Lucy makes questionable decisions without seeming to have a full grasp of her situation and its circumstances. Taking steps to reassert her autonomy by attempting to find out what her clients do with her, she wakes up to something altogether unexpected. Nothing in Sleeping Beauty oppresses the viewer quite as much as the musty stench of death wafting from the decrepit bodies of these repulsive clients. Lucy’s forays into this world serve to test to what extent wealthy, powerful men, even in the frailty of old age, can get away with “renting” the body of a young, beautiful woman to mask fears and vulnerability behind their need to dominate. Lucy willingly offers her services as a “sleeping beauty,” but the real horror is the fact that these services are desired and made available in the first place.
Sleeping Beauty’s limitations, in the end, are not necessarily due to its flaws but what it fails to finally achieve. The film seems to strive for something like the effect of Franz Kafka’s short story “In the Penal Colony,” a perfect and mysterious fable that sufficiently exists as a thing in itself rather than a mere collection of components. Opaque and mysterious, “In the Penal Colony” begs to be examined from all angles, though no amount of interpretation can unlock all its secrets. You can’t disassemble it but must instead observe it in its natural form. Sleeping Beauty yearns to function on this level, but the traces of its construction are too exposed for the oddly mysterious atmosphere to overwhelm the viewer. Small, unexplained details like Lucy pouring vodka, instead of milk, into a bowl of cereal for her enigmatic friend Birdmann (Ewen Leslie) seem like conscious attempts to perplex. Yet if these odd details don’t add up to a unified whole, taken as a collection of moments they certainly create enough interest to make sure viewers will keep trying to look underneath the film’s pristine surface, as smooth and impeccable as Lucy’s often exposed skin.