Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Directed by Julia Leigh
Sleeping Beauty is an incredibly bold choice for star Emily Browning. Unfortunately, her daring performance is at the mercy of a stolid narrative and detached presentation.
Get On Your Boots
Earlier this year Emily Browning starred in Sucker Punch, which featured a young woman working in a brothel and fantasizing about obliterating her pimps and patrons (whilst performing a hypnotic dance routine, no less). It was a great showcase for visual splendor, but the story was absolutely klutzy. Nonetheless, her character, Baby Doll, was one strong girl who knew how to kick butt.
It's interesting, then, that Browning's very next movie is this Sleeping Beauty. In it, Browning plays a promiscuous college girl named Lucy who splits her time between school, working in a restaurant, loaning her body to scientific studies, slaving away in an office copy room, serving as a surrogate girlfriend to a sickly man, snorting lines of coke, and getting drugged up in order to be a play thing to really old men.
Lucy is essentially a lost girl, but the movie never really lets the audience get to know who Lucy really is and given the character's detached relationship with the audience, there's very little reason to care about her. Her detrimental lifestyle doesn't carry much in the way of repurcussions throughout most of the movie. She gets fired from a job she absolutely hates (to the point of conspicuously lying on the floor in the copyroom). She gets evicted from one place, only to move into what seems like a nicer spot (although her one-night-stand du nuit would be the first to point out she needs some curtains).
It's not easy to pinpoint what exactly should be gleaned from watching Sleeping Beauty, but its pedigree as a Jane Campion presentation offers up some clues. The director of movies such as The Piano and The Portrait of a Lady has perhaps found an apprentice in writer/director Julia Leigh, who makes her debut with Sleeping Beauty.
Should Sleeping Beauty be taken as male bashing? After mulling it over, the answer shifts from a knee-jerk "yes" to a more reserved "no." After all, the sickly man is rather sympathetic and his relationship with Lucy, while off kilter and hardly traditional, is interesting. She abruptly proposes marriage, but his response takes her popped question as more of a joke than a serious proposal.
Then there's an ex-boyfriend (to whom Lucy also proposes marriage, much more seriously, and much, much too late); he's moved on and he sees Lucy for what she is: one messed up chick.
So perhaps the take-away is the danger of becoming a woman too dependent on men for her own stability; the danger of selling one's dignity to fill short-term needs at the expense of long-term well-being.
That's a good angle. But it doesn't quite fit. Even the press notes aren't of much help. They go off the rails talking about Lucy being "death-haunted" and fall back on the "E" word. When in doubt, simply say "existentialism" and people will go "ah" and think it's a deep work of art.
Eyes Wide Shut
The bulk of the story focuses on Lucy's night job as a quasi-escort. Scantily clad in lingerie, she serves spirits to a party of well-dressed men. Her colleagues are even more bare-skinned. It's kooky enough to think maybe there's some kind of Eyes Wide Shut-style hanky-panky going on.
Photo: Screen Australia
Alas, the story isn't that detailed. Instead, it turns into a skin-flick with loads of scenes featuring a totally nude Emily Browning. Were it directed by a man, it'd be called another "E" word, "exploitative." Given that it's directed by a woman, it's supposed to be considered a "B" word. "Bold."
There are three old men with whom a drugged up Lucy shares a bed in a remote, opulent house that offers a discreet, confidential setting for the men to play out their erotic fantasies. The one rule: no penetration. But they're free to do pretty much whatever else their hearts desire with their nude, near-comatose girl toy.
One of the men laments his past life and how he treated his wife; he seems kindly enough and is quite content to simply caress Lucy's naked, almost lifeless body, then rest his head on her back.
The second client is a classic dirty old man with loads of issues. He's impotence with an attitude. He stuffs his fingers in Lucy's mouth, sticks a cigarette in her ear, and licks her face all over. He's disgusting. He's a creep. And apparently he gets off on treating women like trash.
The third guy is a big man who has his own issues. He pulls Lucy's nude body to the foot of the bed, picks her up, carries her away a step, then clumsily drops her back to the bed, her drugged body sliding off the mattress and down to the floor while he collapses next to her.
Truth or Bare
Without a doubt, Browning has taken a risk with Sleeping Beauty, but it seems one destined for a limited payoff. It calls to mind another 2011 release, Lovely Molly, in which Gretchen Lodge steams up the screen with full frontal nudity, albeit couched in the rather unpleasant environment of her childhood house possessed by the ghost of her dead, incestuous father. Both films played at this year's sex-charged Toronto International Film Festival and both generate more yawns than intended.
Lucy's body gets critiqued
Photo: Screen Australia
In Sleeping Beauty, Browning spends a surprising amount of time totally nude, with several men putting their hands all over her body. The artistic ambitions of making a statement practically scream out from the screen: This is trying to be something important.
Unfortunately, instead of being important, the end result is an impotent, muddled head-scratcher. For all the risks taken, for all the possibilities of making a statement, it's sad that the result is numbing rather than resounding. One additional, easily overlooked element that is the curiously stilted musical score. Composed by Ben Frost, it works counter to the film's needs. It sits there virtually as lifeless as drugged up Lucy when the movie sorely needed some musical cues to stir up the emotional resonance and accompany the emotions of the characters, most particularly signify Lucy's inner turmoil.
Curious about the after-effects of her new night job, Lucy takes it upon herself to dig into what really happens while she's knocked out. Fine. She should.
But, as dippy as Sucker Punch may have been, it's still more interesting to see Browning take action and kick butt in that movie than to see her bare all in a pretentious play for existential impotence. Oops. That's a Freudian slip. Sleeping Beauty is a pretentious play for existential importance.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.