Waking nightmare – Sleeping Beauty review

Sleeping Beauty – Starring Emily Browning, Rachael Blake and Peter Carroll. Directed by Julia Leigh. Rated MA. Originally published June 8, 2011. By Simon Miraudo.

I remember seeing a production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days with my high school drama class. For those unfamiliar with the play, it features a woman trapped in a mound of dirt for two long acts; she rifles endlessly through her purse and cheerfully rambles on and exclaims at the audience about nothing in particular, except when a recurrent bell dings and reminds her to go to sleep. It’s not a fun watch. At intermission, we stepped out for a breather, and I bombarded my teacher with questions, so I could figure out the key to help me unlock the play’s secrets. “So, this is set in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, right? No… well, she’s gone crazy and buried herself in the desert then. Wait, I’ve got it, this is all a metaphor for divorce!” He explained to me that some things just are. That doesn’t mean they’re superficial however. Some art exists to be impenetrable, not so it can hide a secret meaning from the audience, but just to push their buttons. The same can be said for Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel’s famously surreal short film Un Chien Andalou; a collection of horrifying, inexplicable images purposefully selected by the duo to keep audiences from being able to explicitly say ‘what it’s all about’. But just because something has no outright meaning, doesn’t mean we can’t experience it in a meaningful way.

Australian novelist Julia Leigh makes her directorial debut with Sleeping Beauty, a challenging film that skirts the line between meaningful and superficial. Emily Browning stars as Lucy, a young university student struggling to make ends meet. She works days in an office, afternoons at a restaurant and nights as a prostitute (subjecting herself to scientific experiments for cash in her free time). Still, she can’t quite afford to pay the rent, even after she accepts another job, this one even more ethically confronting than her late-night money-making scheme. Answering an ad in the uni paper, she meets the refined Clara (Rachael Blake), who inspects her body for blemishes, and explains to her the requirements of the position in a frustratingly vague manner. These are the basics: she will be a silver service waitress for a variety of old people at a seemingly Eyes Wide Shut/Salo inspired dinner party. Dressed in lingerie, she is first ignored by the guests, and then abused. But the cash is good, so she asks Clara for more shifts. Lucy is eventually offered a “promotion”, and is asked to take a sleeping tablet and allow her unconscious body to become the plaything of Clara’s perverted clients (although, they’re reminded that “penetration” is strictly out of bounds). The cash for this job is even better…

Leigh really wants to keep the audience at an arm’s length from Lucy. The camera is locked off for much of the film, rarely moving. Close ups are sparse. Important information is never revealed. The distance becomes maddening, and at only 90 minutes, the film feels like an exhausting exercise. Browning is phenomenal in her bold, occasionally confounding, oft-nude role. She is subjected to some truly traumatic, uncomfortable, unthinkable acts (not just her character, but physically Browning). There is a pivotal scene in which Lucy pulls out a $100 note from Clara’s first pay – $100 she needs desperately – and lights it on fire. Why does she do it? She does it because it’s true to her character. I’d be lying if I said I understood who that character was. All I know is that burning the money seems like something she would do, and Browning convinces us that Lucy has at least some idea why she is doing it.  Blake gives Clara some required emotional depth; she is relied on to deliver only exposition, and thus must create a character with her glances and posture.  The rest of the actors struggle with Leigh’s stilted dialogue, including Peter Carroll, Lucy’s first “suitor”, who delivers a lengthy and completely incomprehensible monologue in the middle of proceedings. (Side note: was Carroll specifically cast because he looks so much like Michael Haneke, considering Haneke’s influence can be felt deeply here?)

The film is beautiful in the way a blank canvass is beautiful. It has been untarnished. It’s not that risks haven’t been taken in the creation of this film – they absolutely have – but the audience is forced to do the heavy lifting. What you take away from the movie is really up to you. The enigmatic ending is only enigmatic if you choose to not give it meaning. I’ve tried to do so, but every time I try to put it into words, my interpretation evaporates into the ether, and no longer means a thing. Unlike with Happy Days, or Un Chien Andalou, or the films of Michael Haneke before it, Sleeping Beauty has not left me pondering its puzzle passionately enough. The film is pretty, but ultimately impenetrable to a fault.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Sleeping Beauty arrives on DVD November 23, 2011.

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