Today: February 25, 2024
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Sleeping Beauty

If you thought student tuition fees in the UK were bad, spare a thought for the poor drongoes attending college in Oz, particularly Lucy (Sucker Punch’s Emily Browning), the protagonist of Julia Leigh’s hypnotic, clinical, chilly study of eroticism and alienation, Sleeping Beauty.

If you thought student tuition fees in the UK were
bad, spare a thought for the poor drongoes attending college in Oz,
particularly Lucy (
Sucker Punch’s Emily Browning), the protagonist
of Julia Leigh’s hypnotic, clinical, chilly study of eroticism and alienation,
Sleeping
Beauty.

When we first meet her she’s showing remarkable
control of her gag reflex as a paid guinea pig in a medical test. Then she’s mopping tables in a
diner. Finally, she’s hanging out
in a hotel bar as an elegant escort.
Next morning, she gets home, totally sh*gged out, only for one of her
flatmates to demand her share of the rent. Which she still can’t cover! Is it any wonder then that when
high-class madam-cum-guru Clara (Rachael Blake) offers her a job as a highly-paid,
silver service waitress at the weird fetish parties she organises, Lucy jumps
at the chance. All she has to do
is serve wine in skimpy lingerie to a society of wealthy, elderly men (and one
woman) who gather on a regular basis to indulge in some very formal, very
proper, sensual gluttony, gorging themselves on rare dishes and pawing
scantily-clad courtesans who look like they just stepped out of Robert Palmer’s
Addicted to Love video.

It’s not long before Clara’s offering Lucy more
lucrative employment as a “sleeping beauty” where she’ll be drugged and the
aging pervs get to spend the night doing, well, whatever takes their fancy
(short of penetration) to her slumbering naked body. The service Clara offers is completely confidential, a chance
for her clients to live out their dark fantasies, free of shame, and not even
Lucy will know what goes on while she sleeps. But Lucy is curious and, as her waking life fragments, she
clandestinely films her next engagement…

There’s a moment in Sleeping Beauty when
madam Clara, in the midst of briefing new girl Lucy about her role, solemnly
informs her: “Your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina is a temple.” To which the forthright young miss immediately snorts: “My
vagina is not a temple.” In this one scene, Leigh and Browning neatly encapsulate
Lucy, her outward seeming passivity at odds with the nihilistic strength that
drives her journey.

An Australian-cultivated cutting of the English Rose,
Browning is a pale-skinned, russet-haired, idealised image of innocence and
feminine beauty, and gives the kind of performance critics normally call
‘fearless.’

‘Fearless’ of course
meaning naked.

In fact, Browning is totally ‘fearless’ for much of
the film. But her performance is
also fearless in the brave sense as well, naked in the sense of her
rawness. Outwardly passive, her
character is merely adrift, lonely, alienated and Browning delivers a
performance of subtlety, depth and insolent intelligence. Possessed of a fragile beauty but with
an inner resilience, she says little and does less but even when drugged and
unconscious, her body a blank slate for ancient, withered, sensual adventurers
to write their fantasies on, you never feel she’s not in control of her own
destiny. Browning’s Lucy has
chosen to drift off to sleep in this fairy tale and when the time comes, she’ll
wake up and leave it behind. She
just won’t be woken by a handsome prince.

Cold and mesmerising, Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty plays
out like the flipside of Yasunari Kawabati’s The House Of The Sleeping
Beauties
(already filmed in 2006 as Das Haus der
schlafenden Schönen
) in which an aging lothario becomes
obsessed with the secrets of the titular high-class brothel. Leigh merely swaps the elderly male for
the passive young female. The
film’s not without flaws, it walks the high-wire of pretension like Dumbo with
an umbrella clutched in his trunk but it never actually falls. For an erotic film featuring one of the
world’s most beautiful young actresses frequently undraped, it’s pretty
unarousing and curiously uninvolving.
It’s cold, it’s clinical, austere.
But it’s intriguing. It’s
unafraid to be ambiguous, to ask questions it doesn’t have easy answers for.

Dark, beautiful and
elusive, in Sleeping Beauty, Leigh and her muse Browning, have delivered an uneven but memorably
provocative work,

David Watson

David Watson is a screenwriter, journalist and 'manny' who, depending on time of day and alcohol intake could be described as a likeable misanthrope or a carnaptious bampot. He loves about 96% of you but there's at least 4% he'd definitely eat in the event of a plane crash. Email: david.watson@filmjuice.com

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