Sleeping Beauty Review
Have you ever sat there waiting what feels like an impossibly long period of time for a hard-to-read film to come to some kind of a conclusion? Sure, all films come to an end, but some of them just don’t go anywhere.
Sleeping Beauty is one such film. Just about as far as you could possibly get in tone and content to the Disney-adapted fairytale by the same name, Australian writer/director Julia Leigh makes her debut with this feature. It’s the fourth directorial debut that I’ve looked at this month following on from the pretty average Richard Gere-starring thriller The Double; the excellent lead vehicle for Brendan Gleeson, The Guard, which was one of the most underrated films of last year; and Paddy Considine’s directorial debut – arguably the best British film of last year – Tyrannosaur. And, despite the fact that it is undeniably the hardest to quantify, it is easily the least enjoyable.
Indeed I can see why many walked out of the cinema during its limited theatrical runs and I don’t blame them. In fact, I dare say they weren’t missing much. Its debut at Cannes might not have been an outright failure, but it also failed to generate any significant buzz, with many critics using the dreaded P word. You’ve got to be worried when a Cannes critic regards your film as pretentious.
The story (if you can call it that) follows the character of Lucy, a university student who holds down a number of part-time jobs, none of which she is particularly interested in. She does the photocopying at an office; she’s a waitress at a small restaurant; and she even volunteers as a test subject at the University laboratories. She appears to have just one friend, an eccentric alcoholic who appears to love her, but in a non-sexual way. Her landlord’s boyfriend can’t wait to get rid of her and who can blame him? – she spends her nights at bars taking hard drugs and offering herself up for sex with anybody who fancies it, then turns up in the morning with no consideration for little things like “rent”.
Responding to an ad, she finds herself recruited by a silver service waitressing agency which caters for rich clients with unusual preferences. Although she’s quite open to the possibility that this ‘elite’ agency may expect her to perform sexual favours for the clientele – an understandably assumption when they expect their waitresses to serve them scantily-clad in lingerie – what they actually want from her is something far stranger: they drink some drug-laced tea that will put her to sleep, then strip and get into a big double-bed. She is not told what will happen, and, at first, does not particularly care; even when assured that there will be “no penetration”, she does not act like she would have been bothered if there was. But what is being done to her whilst she lies there like Sleeping Beauty?
There’s no denying that Julia Leigh’s directorial debut is both a daring and fascinating feature film, most prominently in its concept. Based on her second screenplay – her first was recently made into the acclaimed Willem Dafoe film The Hunter – she has taken a very ethereal, voyeuristic tale and, under the guidance of The Piano’s director, Jane Campion, adapted it into a film that is much more about insinuation and interpretation than overt exposition and spoon-fed narrative. Whilst this deserves some recognition, it has the potential to leave a large majority of viewers deeply unsatisfied, and not just by the ending, but the movie as a whole.
It’s a shame because this clearly had the chance to be a more than just an interesting concept, and deliver as a good movie as well. The idea was simple, and is what drew many to the project in the first place: the lead protagonist supposedly has no idea what happens to her while she is in her drugged slumber; the audience knows exactly what happens – and what we are supposed to see over the course of the movie is her physical and subconscious memories of the events that took place, which gradually invading her waking hours.
Whilst she can’t conventionally remember what happened, tiny, subtle changes in her life – which are inexplicable to her – are clear and obvious signs to us, as an audience, that, somewhere inside of her, there is a memory of something. After the first couple of ‘special nights’ she moves into a new flat only to find that she, inexplicably, feels the need to get up and put knickers on before she goes to sleep; when on a bus she finds herself drawn to touch a sleeping woman next to her who has a single tear running down her cheek. It’s almost like she is compelled to do things that she has no reason to do because her body can remember what it has been through.
Yet it’s all too vague and obtuse. From the random phone-call from her estranged money-grabbing mother while she is working, to the scenes where she volunteers for the medical experiments (which, one must assume, are purely to set-up one of the elements required for her actions in the final act), to the alcoholic friend who tirelessly behaves as if he were a homosexual man constantly apologetic to his best friend – who is a girl – for not being able to bring himself to actually kiss her. Even the clever idea that the impotence of the ‘clients’ is supposed to juxtapose Lucy’s eminent but wasted sexuality is never fully realised but just skipped over, as if it has some kind of significance, but is never deserving of any weight. Which is a shame.
Indeed a fair amount of the movie just doesn’t make a great deal of sense, and although, somehow, you can put some of the pieces together, few will likely be bothered to, particularly when they realise that it’s all in vain: the end is one big anticlimax sandwiched on top of another.
Some films make you feel like you are watching a car crash happening in slow motion. Sleeping Beauty makes you feel like you’re in a car, on the motorway, getting warning signs that there’s a car crash up ahead, making you worry about the seriousness and extent of the crash, and then make you brake sharply because all of the cars ahead of you are slowing due to the crash, and then... cuts to credits.
Am I being too harsh on it? Is there anything redeeming about it?
Well there is certainly something about the film which draws your interest. It’s probably a combination of factors. We have the aloof, shadow-portraits of the majority of the characters – whose lives, thoughts, motivations and behaviour are never really explained in any way. Lucy is utterly aimless, drifting through life like a walking zombie, living a listless, going-nowhere existence. Yet she is in her sexual prime. As a counterpoint, her clients are old, decrepit and impotent, yet they appear to be clasping to life in a way that we never see from Lucy. Despite it going nowhere, there is a study of sexual disassociation at the heart of it, just one which never gets adequately explored. And there’s the very slow, almost-dreamlike camerawork, which uses incremental 180 degree sweeps to build the unease before we see what the characters see (Lucy turns up at the mansion where she does her ‘special job’ and sees something which makes her stop in her steps – the camera pans very slowly across from us looking at her, to us looking at exactly what she sees, thereby visually telegraphing the shock and disconcertion that she feels even before we see what she’s been affected by). Finally there’s the score, which, for the most part, would have you believe that it doesn’t even exist. Yet, it is there, beneath the surface – this minimalistic effort which undercuts the movie with a malevolent undercurrent.
Even lead actress Emily Browning is quite surprising in the role (you may not recognise any of the other participants but they are all perfectly acceptable in their requisite parts). You may recognise Browning from playing the lead character of Baby Doll in Zack Snyder’s failed project Sucker Punch, which I actually quite enjoyed, but which was, admittedly, fairly fluffy and style-over-substance in nature. It’s not like we could judge anything from her performance in Sucker Punch but, here, one would have hoped that it would have been her chance to shine and it simply isn’t.
Unfortunately for the young actress, her role here appears to reflect the very nature of the movie itself – it’s so vague and slight that you can’t really regard it as being impressive. Daring? Maybe, but not good, per se. Sure, she gets naked a lot – and this is the kind of movie where the Director also deserves credit for making a distinctly unsexy movie despite an unfathomable amount of nudity (Browning looking painfully thin despite here ostensible position as a piece of alabaster-porcelain perfection) – and her character is put through a pretty tough ordeal, but we never really get to see any range, with her one, more emotive scene coming far too late to mean anything, and even feeling a little bit over-the-top.
Sleeping Beauty is indeed something of a pretentious curio, which draws you in with its imaginative premise, but fails to deliver in any significant fashion. I don’t mind unconventionally voyeuristic pieces which leave a great deal to interpretation, but they have to have some purpose; some structure. This film sits on the fence for the entire duration, throwing scraps at you to somehow sustain you – a good idea here; a surprising amount of nudity there; an unusual character here; a random monologue there – and vaguely nods in the direction of the fairytale from which it takes its name (few will miss the significance of the walking slumber in which Lucy lives her life and the inevitable wake-up kiss, but is there really anything beyond that?), but, at the end of it all, you feel fairly mistreated, somewhat violated, and desperate to understand the hidden meanings despite the slow realisation that there really aren’t any. Don’t be drawn in by the curiosity element, there really is very little to see here, and even less to appreciate.