Film review: Sleeping Beauty

The sterile detachment of an alienated half-life gives way to the pain of rebirth, observes Will Brooker

October 13, 2011

Sleeping Beauty

Directed by Julia Leigh

Starring Emily Browning and Rachael Blake

Released in the UK on 14 October

Cinema regularly cuts up its characters' lives. Hours can pass in the narrative ellipsis between a fade to black and the start of the next shot. And so, while Julia Leigh's camera observes her heroine Lucy (Emily Browning) in long, level stares, her life reaches us in dissected slices.

Lucy doesn't live so much as let life happen to her with barely a flinch. Her passivity becomes her personality. She is wanton without wanting, without desire. Her lack of engagement makes everything routine, flattening distinctions: a random sexual encounter is no more exciting than fixing the photocopier. She takes a camera down her throat in a paid medical trial. She strips obediently in a job interview. She accepts everything and feels very little. When she's invited to become a sleeping beauty and give herself up to clients while she lies drugged, she asks only "for how long" and "how much". Lucy is a diamond, flawless but cold.

The film's colours are dialled down, desaturated. Pouring vodka, Lucy asks, "white, or white?" Her other drug of choice is, inevitably, cocaine's straight lines. We see her against the bleached walls of a clinic, the pristine linen of a dining room, the crisp sheets of a bed. Each new space becomes a frame for Lucy to glide through, a stage for her listless, languid performance. A consistent, pale palette emerges from recurring shades: oak and ochre, moss and silver. Lucy wears what her clients demand; white lingerie and rose wraps against her snowy skin and copper-gold hair. Her own casual clothes are a uniform of dull grey and faded denim.

On one level, as the title suggests, the film is a fairy tale. Like classic Peter Greenaway, it also resembles a series of paintings or moving tableaux: as such, it makes nakedness seem normal, yet it also encourages our discomfort with the artistic tradition of the objectified female nude. The men who pay to use Lucy are grotesque, like the gargoyle squatting on a sleeping beauty in Fuseli's The Nightmare, but their failed attempts to act out sexual fantasies with their own flabby, sagging bodies are clumsily human, while Lucy herself, icy and numb, is described as Frankenstein's monster.

Whether the film is erotic or exploitative is arguable. Whether it interrogates or simply observes is also open to debate. Like Lucy, its primary mode is turned-off: and this could be seen as its problem. The film and its cast are strangely mannered, as if acting out a ritual. The sleep drug is served in a tea ceremony. Lucy assures her employer she is "perfectly fine, thank you", pertly polite as Alice in Wonderland; her Australian inflection makes her questions sound like statements and vice versa. The clients are soothed with promises of discretion, like a lullaby. Taking our cue from Lucy, we coast in neutral, disengaged. There seems little at stake when she takes increasingly bizarre jobs as she has only a half-life to lose. The film risks becoming as unfeeling as its protagonist, as glossy and smooth as the polished stone Lucy uses as a paperweight for her dollars. Her conversations with her one friend, Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), are as stilted and as ritualistic as all the others, so when his frail life fades to black, we barely miss him.

But then, subtly, she begins to shift and resist, so slowly that we (and she) don't realise at first. She rents a glassy apartment high above the city and starts to look down on the world from a distance. She wakes one night, naked and alone, and pulls on underwear as if she vaguely feels she's being watched. The many things she's swallowed come back up in a sudden retch. And at last, towards its end, after all the nudity and obscenity has left us cold, the film shows us something genuinely strange, so uncanny that it takes long moments to realise why the sight is disturbing, why the camera has tracked left from its usual steadily framed symmetry. Lucy is fighting back and struggling against the drug.

In Sleeping Beauty's final moments, we, like Lucy, ride a rush of shock, grief, relief and fear, and it comes with violent, painful catharsis. After half-life and near-death, she is being born.

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