Sleeping Beauty review

Julia Leigh's startling debut may be visually confident, but what substance is there beneath the style?
Julia Leigh’s debut feature contains some of the most deeply unpleasant moments I’ve ever squirmed away from in a cinema seat, but also some of the most visually sumptuous. Tender at times, and brutal at others, Sleeping Beauty is undoubtedly a provocative film. Whether it knows what it wants to provoke is the question you’ll be left asking.
The story of Sleeping Beauty is that of
Lucy [Emily Browning], a university student who appears ambivalent to the point of nihilism about her own body and sexual habits, but who cares intensely for a friend, the alcoholic and unelaborated Birdmann [Ewen Leslie].
Leigh, who wrote and directed the film, gives little away about Lucy’s life up until the events it depicts, which follow what happens to Lucy after she answers an advert calling for young girls to wait on a private table dressed in lingerie.
Lucy is uncompromised by the prospect, and almost bored by the process of appraisal her body is subjected to by her new employers. She assures her Madame that, despite the set-up’s no-penetration rule, her vagina is not a temple.
That much has been proven in an early scene of Lucy deciding on a sexual liaison by coin-toss and, we think, selling her body in an upmarket bar. Not much of Lucy’s body is treated as a temple, as it goes, with the film’s opening scene witnessing her subject it to what we assume are paid medical experiments.
Soon, Lucy moves from parading her body in lingerie done up as the one sacrificial virgin in a nest of fetish-wear dominatrices, to working as a sleeping beauty. Voluntarily drugged into a deep sleep and unaware of what happens to her, Lucy’s body is used by visiting men, though, as the Madame reminds them, never penetrated.
One such visitor venerates Lucy’s body, another desecrates and humiliates it, and another still dominates and manhandles her sleeping form. It is this trio of scenes where Leigh does her damage, unflinchingly showing the lifeless Lucy subjected to the deeply uncomfortable caresses or attacks of the men who visit her. Leigh channels Michael Haneke’s Funny Games here, accusing the viewer of complicity in the scenes unfolding.
I did feel complicit, and I looked away. Emily Browning’s tiny size and extreme youth in comparison to the ageing men who visited the bedchamber made the scenes feel like collusion in the worst possible intrusion.
The world of the sleeping beauty is conjured up by the mysterious Clara [Rachel Blake] a glamorous woman who conducts herself according to a rigorously codified system of gentility at odds with her sex-industry profession. Blake plays Clara with a paradoxical amount of compassion for Lucy. Clara isn’t just complicit in the abuse of Lucy’s body but arranges it detail by minute detail, yet at moments appears to care deeply for her charge. It’s a strong performance, as far as a film which keeps its characters at such an inaccessible distance from its audience can be.
Emily Browning is the life model from which Leigh’s scenes are painted. Pre-Raphaelite and beautiful, Browning  moves slowly through the film almost entirely impassively, but for one moment of elementary release. As a performance, Browning deserves plaudits for self-control and boldness, but again, as Leigh’s film keeps us at arm’s length from Lucy’s inner life, it’s difficult to praise Browning for much other than her extreme beauty and extreme fearlessness.
What Sleeping Beauty certainly isn’t is a story of cash-strapped innocence manipulated into a seedy lifestyle. The film is nowhere near that confident or exact in its judgements. Lucy isn’t coerced, and though she needs money, it’s proven early on that it means little to her. She is the agent, actively seeking out the work of a sleeping beauty, and then passively accepting it. What motivates her to do what she does, how it affects her, and even who she is though, are not questions Leigh’s film answers.
As a film-maker, Leigh’s camera is almost as passive and ambivalent as her narcotised lead. She creates a sense of dull dread, following Lucy through the tedium of her day-to-day jobs, relying so infrequently on a musical score that much of the film is silent.
The silence creates menace, protracted almost unbearably at one point in the film by having one of the bedchamber visitors, Australian stage actor Peter Carroll, deliver a lengthy monologue straight to camera. As the anonymous man, Carroll recites a passage from Ingeborg Bachmann’s The Thirtieth Year while Lucy slumbers behind him. The effect is to defer the dreaded bedroom scene, creating palpable dread in the knowledge of what is to come at the tale’s end.
The fairy tale elements Sleeping Beauty’s title anticipates are present, but they add little but visual interest to the film’s admittedly gorgeous shots. A beautiful maiden, a velvet cloak, a magic potion, a wicked witch and a handful of poisonous berries all bubble to the surface of the film, then burst and disappear. Beautiful yes, but absent of meaning, it’s perfume advert imagery.
Fellow Australian film-maker Jane Campion acted as mentor and lent her name to Sleeping Beauty, no doubt giving the film a boost when it came to festival and critical recognition. Both filmmakers share an eye for beautifully composed shots, and elicit strong performances from their cast, but only one of them, so far, has told a story audiences can invest in, rather than merely gaze at or feel compromised by.
Sleeping Beauty is a startling first move from Leigh, but its cryptic, unanchored narrative is less important, and means less than it would have you believe.