Wendy McDougall/Sundance Selects
Short on cash and not particularly squeamish about how she gets it, a university student (Emily Browning) drifts into a sideline as a sex worker, only to discover that she's not ambivalent about quite everything.
Wendy McDougall/Sundance Selects
- Director: Julia Leigh
- Genre: Drama
- Running Time: 104 minutes
Not rated; sexual content
With: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake and Ewen Leslie
In Charles Perrault's classic Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, a princess is cursed to sleep for 100 years, eventually waking to find a handsome prince at the ready, with marriage on offer and her friends and family preserved in sleep just as she was. Walt Disney revised the scenario in 1959, imagining that the prince's kiss is what revives the princess and rescues her from endless sleep.
But we've had another half-century to grow jaundiced, and the young woman in writer-director Julia Leigh's new Sleeping Beauty is no princess. She's largely alone. When she is put into deep sleeps, it's only for one night. And while men do come to visit her, they're no princes.
Lucy (Emily Browning) is a college student in Sydney who makes ends meet via a series of odd jobs: making copies in an office, cleaning tables in a cafe, trolling swanky bars for wealthy men willing to pay for her company behind closed doors. But the occasional evening of casual prostitution still isn't quite enough to make rent, so she answers an advertisement that leads her to a posh office where a woman, Clara (Rachael Blake), interviews and hires her. Clara's description of the work is vague, but it pays $250 an hour, and she is quite clear that sex, at least in a purely anatomical sense, isn't in the job description.
What follows is Lucy's descent into an ultrawealthy underworld where the rich and powerful hire women from Clara's agency to serve as nude or semi-nude staff at otherwise stuffy dinner parties. On Lucy's first day, her co-workers all look like backup dancers in an R-rated '80s Robert Palmer video: red lipstick, black girdles and garters, little else.
Lucy stands out, though, with her red hair, pale skin and tiny figure, so Clara promotes her to a new role, in which she is voluntarily drugged and a man pays to spend an undisturbed night with her unconscious figure — subject to the same prohibitions against penetrative acts that Clara promised in that initial interview.
Leigh, a novelist making her cinematic debut here, directs with a cold and distancing eye. Sleeping Beauty has the deliberate grace of Kubrick, and while comparisons to the sex parties of Eyes Wide Shut are inevitable, Leigh's approach is even more sexless and sterile than the master's.
That's entirely by design, though. The film may call to mind the gauzy, self-serious European erotic cinema of the '70s, but here the eroticism has been neatly excised. Lucy is nude throughout much of the film, yet there's no titillation in the presentation. It's not that Lucy is merely comfortable en deshabille; Browning's blase detachment creates the impression that she simply doesn't care either way — just as she doesn't care much what she allows men to do to her.
But that detachment conceals a deep swell of emotions underneath. In her occasional visits to Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a depressed shut-in inclined to eating his cereal with vodka instead of milk, she allows herself a degree of emotional nudity as well. She nestles into him and weeps, her visits there an emotional release for her just as they are a sexual one for him.
Lucy is often out of control, in a sedate and understated way that reflects the film's languid pace, but her consciousness of her recklessness gives her the illusion of control. Not knowing what happens to her while she sleeps brings her to her breaking point. But Leigh's camera knows all, observing rich old men entering Lucy's chamber for nights that range from tender and sad to cruelly disturbing.
Leigh's film is heavy on ideas about empowerment and sexual agency, but they're shrouded in a story that tries — too hard at times — not to give too much away. The result can feel untouchable and impenetrable, but it also serves to make its visceral moments that much more affecting. This Sleeping Beauty is no fairy tale; it's stark, dispassionate and noticeably short on happily ever afters.