On paper, Sleeping Beauty is a great idea. If the film is horrible, you have actress Emily Browning walking around naked for a good majority of the film. How can you lose right? Well, Julia Leigh's directorial debut fails to even be erotic. There's nothing particular titillating about it, so the sexual content doesn't even compensate for how unengaging the film is. In 2008, the script made the 2008 Black List of the best unproduced screenplays going around Hollywood. I'm starting to doubt the validity of the Black List, considering the last film I read about making this list was Cop Out. Sleeping Beauty premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival and received a lukewarm reception in its limited release. The next time you hear someone negatively describe a film as "pretentious art house fare," you can look to this film to get a better understanding of what they mean.
Emily Browning plays Lucy, a university student with a number of odd jobs. There's little insight into her personality, although we see her at a club agreeing to have sex with a man as the result of a coin toss. Lucy responds to an ad in the student newspaper and meets Clara (Rachael Blake), who tells her the job is freelance silver service (basically a waitress) where she'll be clad only in lingerie (others are nearly naked) catering to upper-class, mostly older men. Remember the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut? It's easy to imagine those same people in attendance being served here. It's similarly elite and mysterious. As an employee, Lucy is called Sara and is told on the first day to match her lipstick to the color of her labia. Clara soon requests Lucy for a different type of job. She's given a drink that puts her to sleep, her sedated body is put in a bed, and men are allowed to join her to do whatever they wish, with a strict "no penetration" rule.
Sounds fascinating right? Well, it's not. I have to give it some credit though. Obviously, this material could've been presented in a trashy, exploitive way; instead it's an art house snoozefest that seems to be trying way too hard. It only seems exploitive because of how utterly pointless it seems. Not concerned with plot or character, it builds on neither. Most of the dialogue is trivial, providing neither insight nor explanation. Browning is in every scene of the film (or close to it) and her character Lucy is completely without depth. We watch her interact with her two landlords, who clearly aren't fond of her but it doesn't explore that any further. She has some sort of emotional relationship with a man her age, known only as Birdman (Ewen Leslie) whose drug addiction is killing him, but whatever.
There are minimal cuts, with most scenes composed of unbroken shots. The camera holds on the subject until a cut is absolutely necessarily, usually at the start of a new scene. With her filmmaking techniques, Leigh makes the audience a voyeur, with no emotional connection to what we're seeing. Sleeping Beauty is a cold, distant film that treats us like Lucy's customers; we can get close, but with no penetration. I'm not sure how the film benefits from Leigh's treatment of the subject. Perhaps it's commenting on the sexual exploitation of women and the way it's often passively regarded. Or even the emotionless way in which women allow themselves to be sexually exploited. Or maybe I'm just searching too deeply for a reason to have sat through the film.
The film is unafraid to take its time. In one instance, the camera holds on the face of an old man describing a book he discovered earlier that day and re-read. It's a long-winded (five minute), roundabout and pretentious way of giving us needless insight into this character. If this sounds like a negative critique of the scene, let me clarify; it's one of the best scenes in the film.
Most of the attention will be focused on the 23-year-old Emily Browning, who has been acting since the age of ten. The role does little for her, besides helping her shed her child-actress image by shedding all her clothes. It's a mature film made for mature audiences that has her wandering through much of it fully naked, but it doesn't allow her to show off the range or depth of her ability as an actress. Her innocent face and pale white skin make her an appropriate choice for the role, but it's unfortunate how one-dimensional it is through no fault of her own. She exposes her body, but the script gives her nothing else to expose. I don't need the psychological complexities of a character spoon-fed to me, but this goes beyond subtlety; there's nothing there.
It is a brave performance, considering she has to lie almost entirely motionless under old, naked men while they say and do vulgar things to her. She's smart to do it in a film that fancies itself art rather than an exploitation film. On making Sleeping Beauty, Browning said "Even reading the screenplay, it made me feel uncomfortable. But that was something that attracted me to it. I would prefer to polarize an audience as opposed to making an entertaining film everybody feels ambivalent about." I respect that outlook, but Sleeping Beauty is so cold it's not even discomforting. It renders you a passive observer. Browning is as good as she can be in the role, my only complaint being her screaming in the second to last scene. It didn't sit right with me, seeming unnatural and forced.
Let me be clear, I didn't hate Sleeping Beauty. I admire elements of Browning's performance, the austerity of Leigh's direction; I spent more time waiting for something to happen than I did waiting for it to end. The only time the monotony is broken is when a bit of a curveball is thrown towards the end, but the last shot is a slap in the face. It's abrupt, frustrating, and takes itself so seriously it's obnoxious. A film doesn't need to be meaningful; it has many functions it can serve, but what is this one's? Besides an excuse for Browning to take off her clothes, what has been said? Sleeping Beauty is lovely to look at sometimes, but it's so uninvolving you won't even be inspired to get up and turn it off halfway through.