Australian Julia Leigh's debut feature Sleeping Beauty (2011) is the furthest possible take one can imagine on the classic 1697 French fairy tale "La Belle au bois dormant" by Charles Perrault, and on the magnificent 1959 animated version of said tale by Walt Disney (easily one of the handful of features the studio made whose visual grandeur--it was shot in Super Technirama 70, took eight years to produce, six years to animate in a distinctly elongated Gothic style--mostly overwhelms the standard Disney house tone of namby-pamby wholesomeness). This film is closer (closer, not necessarily close) in spirit and tone to Catherine Breillat's 2010 digital film, with the most significant difference being a kinky twist to the story inspired by a 1961 Japanese novella by Yasunari Kawabata.
It starts (unlike the two other versions) in modern day, introducing Lucy (Emily Browning), a university student struggling to keep above water financially--she works in a sterile office doing photocopying, waitresses part-time in a cafe, and on occasion volunteers sex in a high class bar (whether she goes through with it or not isn't clear). Eventually she answers a newspaper ad, and finds herself being interviewed by Clara (Rachael Blake). The job offered is decidedly decadent: she is to attend a formal-wear dinner serving wine in snow-white lingerie (that complements her equally pale skin), with lipstick that matches exactly (and this Clara explicitly specifies) the color of her labia.
The pay apparently is very good; Lucy returns seeking more work, and over tea Clara informs her that if she consents (and here's where the Kawabata story comes in), she will be given a powerful narcotic which will put her to sleep, be laid in a large bed where a client will be allowed to do everything and anything to her except penetrate her vaginally.
The sessions are the heart of the film, with Lucy's body often shot head-on, the feet towards the camera, the image striking in its symmetry yet with a tone of unsettling serenity. The clients respond in a variety of ways--one licks her face, another drags her off the bed. There's more, but easily the most disturbing reaction comes from one client who sits at the foot of the bed opposite Clara and tells her (while Lucy sleeps on) a long, rambling story that concludes with him despairingly saying he is all “broken bones.” It's a moment of emotional nakedness, and one can't help but think it's Leigh's way of making the character more sympathetic, which one initially resists--why would anyone want to feel sympathy towards this wealthy pervert?
One is compelled to do so. Stripped, the men reveal themselves to be a sad contrast to Lucy's gracefully perfect form. Oh, some of them show signs of good maintenance--some muscle definition here, there--but on the whole you can see where the sand has slipped, you see the pathos of their tiny phalluses, hanging limply over their shriveled scrotum sacs.
There's more. Lucy on occasion shows up in what looks like a research lab where a scientist takes a tube with a balloon attached and slides it down her throat (the researcher is possibly conducting a procedure called esophageal manometry, where the balloon measures the strength of the esophagus' contracting muscles); at one point Lucy sarcastically calls him “Dr. Frankenstein”--but why submit to these tests? They're apparently paid for--Lucy signs what looks like a waiver, and collects a yellow envelope that possibly contains money--but all that discomfort repeated (she does this several times) seems to indicate more than just a need for money. A masochistic enjoyment of choking? An unanswered desire for penance? A flirtation with the researcher (judging from their interaction, unlikely). Perhaps a combination of all three?
Even more puzzling is her relationship with a man called Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a lethargic, despairing man who seems attracted to Lucy and grateful for her impromptu visits; conversely Lucy seems happier and more relaxed with him than with anyone else in the film--she casually agrees to his request to get married (nothing seems to come out of this) and, deadpan, serves him a bowl of cereal with vodka poured on top.
Later we meet a man who seems to know both Birdmann and Lucy from way back--an old friend, kind of. I say 'kind of' because when Lucy throws him the question Birdmann used to throw at her--“will you marry me?”--the man starts verbally abusing her.
Who is he to her? Who is Birdmann to her? Why does Lucy go to that lab? Leigh hangs these enigmatic (sometimes comically so) details like so many Christmas ornaments on the central fablelike mystery of Lucy lying asleep--what drives her to do this? She gets paid well--but for a whole night? And doing God knows what? Why do the men do what they do? That first client gives us an oblique clue (as a hedge against entropy and despair), but Leigh seems to hint at more--there's something primal, something powerful in the image of these wrinkled old creatures hovering like vampires over this helpless girl. Possibly Leigh wants to evoke a sense of mortality as opposed to renewal, of flesh corrupted by time lying side-by-side with the miracle of this timeless, ethereal beauty and her breathtakingly smooth skin.
One isn't quite sure what Leigh is getting at--whether she's attempting to say something specific, or simply creating a mood, a feeling. She seems to be a talented imagemaker who knows how to borrow eclectically--the decadence of the dinner scene is possibly inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini's magisterially malevolent Salo (1975); the old men in bed with her seem to recall the erotic, deadpan comical surrealism of Luis Bunuel (I'm thinking Belle de Jour (1967)); the overall fairytale ambiance, however, seems all her own. Fascinating debut film--can she manage to say something more definite on her next venture, or will she continue with this more oblique approach, somehow retain our interest? One wonders.
First published in Businessworld, 5.10.12