A lot to like and a lot to stare at open mouthed in amazement at the sheer chutzpah on display in Julia Leigh’s startling, energetic, divisive, debut feature. Taking a central conceit that must be swallowed whole or not at all is the main stumbling block. The idea that very, very rich men would pay vast amounts of (Australian) dollars just to spend a night with delicate Lucy’s porcelain, unconcious body without penetration is fantastical when presumably they could get a lot more for a lot less elsewhere. However, once this is surmounted Sleeping Beauty becomes a literary, reverse Faery Tale. A beautifully framed, slightly pretentious, slightly obvious study of self destruction. It’s a mixed bag basically, but fascinating all the same.
Lucy (Emily Browning, Sucker Punch, Sorry) is a girl rolling with life and making money where she can. We see her working in an office, waitressing in a bar and picking up guys in clubs and sleeping with them for money before returning to the student style shambles she calls home. Her past troubles aren’t so much hinted at as signposted and written all over her face. She shares a strange, non sexual relationship with a recovering addict (still serves him muesli with vodka, mind) which is as close to normality as she gets. Drawn into a strange, rich man’s sex club she starts performing silver service in her underwear before graduating to the infinitely more dubious, much more lucrative pursuit of allowing herself to be drugged asleep so the aforementioned rich, white men can do what they want (sort of) with her comatose body. As mentioned earlier this is less likely than the rich, white man’s sex club in Eyes Wide Shut, but it does give Leigh a chance to introduce a creepy, necrophiliac feel to proceedings and allow Browning to showcase her bravery as she is licked, thrown about and in one staggering scene, dropped violently, all whilst totally naked and not moving a muscle. These scenes are the movies heart. The contrast between Lucy’s fresh, young form and the decrepit, sagging pectoral muscles, buttocks and even genitals of the equally brave actors depicting the clients is highlighted again and again. These men may even be trying to stave off death by sucking the life, vampirically, out of Lucy.
Playing it entirely straight, severely so, allows Sleeping Beauty to maintain a thread of realism even whilst lines like “Match your lipstick with your labia, really.” or “The only way I can get a hard on now is a truckload of viagra and a beautiful girl shoving her fingers up my arse.” are delivered in an Australian twang that is rarely less than disconcerting. There is a distinctly European feel to proceedings, heightening the oddity of the accents further. Beautiful backgrounds, strong lines, endless corridors empty of life recall Antonioni certainly.
So, a naive view of the sex trade (being pedalled by a woman, both in the film and as director interestingly) that dangerously purports it to be relatively safe, elegant, lucrative and populated largely by kindly, old men who talk about Scandinavian literature for longer than is strictly necessary. Balanced by a sympathetic, unsettling character study of a little girl, more lost than most. Whether one outweighs the other is up to you. Cinema, after all, has no perogative to be either responsible or a role model.