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Entries in Sleeping Beauty [2011] (1)

Thursday
Nov242011

Sleeping Beauty (2011)

Narcolusty

I can't prove this theory, but I think the reason most people will watch Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty is the same reason I did: "The main chick from Sucker Punch is naked for, like, the whole movie!"* There's nothing wrong with that. In this case, any measure that gets people into the theatre is a good thing.

The nude actress in question is Emily Browning, the milk-skinned, pouty-lipped heroine who turned heads in Zack Snyder's gaudy video-game homage without making any impression as a performer. Sleeping Beauty feels like penance for that role, a glorious do-over that will, hopefully, introduce the world to a phenomenal young actress.

She stars as Lucy, a working-class Australian college student whose list of concurrent jobs includes waitressing, clerking, and acting as a test subject in a campus lab. She answers an ad for what she assumes is some kind of modeling agency. During the interview, her would-be boss, Clara (Rachael Blake), informs her that the position requires absolute obeisance and discretion, and that the firm's clientele will demand certain favors--none of which are allowed to involve penetration. Lucy's hesitation dissolves when she hears the words "$250 an hour", and soon she's serving Beluga caviar to millionaires while dressed in white garters and a bra that barely covers her nipples.

You might expect the rest of the film to play out as a cautionary tale wherein Lucy gets hooked on the lifestyle, drugs, and attendant material luxury that such an influx of cash affords. We get glimpses of that, but Leigh (who also wrote the screenplay) boldly sticks to the rules she establishes early on through Clara. She warns Lucy not to get too comfortable, and to save as much as she can so as not to make this job into a career. It's freelance work, and there's always a danger that her fickle customers will demand a new flavor on a moment's notice. Instead of a melodramatic, climactic crash, Lucy's career gradually peters out, and we see her having to pick up more shifts at her other jobs in order to once again make ends meet.

The call-girl work becomes less challenging but more disturbing. Lucy is summoned to Clara's countryside mansion and asked to drink a sedative-laced tea. Once unconscious, she is placed in a large bed and presented to random old men--some just want to cuddle, others have more nefarious ideas. Each acts out the boiling-over impotence of being soulless masters of the universe. All the money on the planet, it seems, can't cure a withered, dead penis or the heartbreak of a broken family.

If you go into Sleeping Beauty expecting artsy soft-core porn, you'll be sorely disappointed. As a storyteller, Leigh also adheres to Clara's "no penetration" rule. Yes, there's a lot of nudity here, but it's all very matter-of-fact, very business-like. Leigh drains the eroticism from her picture, replacing it, curiously, with fleeting moments of tenderness. The director has a fetish for the sense of touch; through skillful instruction to her actors and with the aid of cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, she makes the audience feel what her characters feel.

For example, when Clara and her assistant, Thomas (Eden Falk), inspect Lucy for the first time, they pour over every detail of her body with the detached, clinical professionalism of general practitioners. They caress every curve to ensure perfection in the same way a book collector eyeballs all angles of a dust jacket for crispness. Later, Lucy cuddles with a clinically depressed friend named Birdmann (Ewen Leslie); the tight framing of the shot and raw, sad energy of two damage characters clinging to anything warm comes as close to perfectly capturing a hug as any such moment I've seen in a film.

To some, this probably sounds terribly boring. Sleeping Beauty won't be for everyone, just as the films in its direct lineage were challenges to audiences of their day. We get thematic callbacks to Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, as well as the exploitation masterpiece, Thriller: A Cruel Picture. Both looked at high-class prostitution from the unglamorous angle of the call-girl (with very different results, of course). But the Leigh's greatest influence, conscious or not, is Stanley Kubrick.

Visually, Sleeping Beauty owes a lot to Eyes Wide Shut and The Shining, with its stunning, decadent set design and costuming. Leigh is a big fan of wide shots where characters are almost incidental to the scenery--but she also loves her close-ups, and has wisely cast great actors with extremely interesting faces. Lucy's first "Sleeping Beauty" client (Peter Carroll) has a touching, long soliloquy about aging and wealth that made me forget he was about to sexually assault a girl several decades his junior. This film, like several of Kubrick's, is fascinated with the scummy dark side of gross wealth. The super-rich are bored and don't want for anything except experiences they haven't already purchased; the lower-class are so desperate just to get by that they dilute their misery with distractions that ultimately keep them the playthings of the elite.

If none of that sounds appealing, at least watch Sleeping Beauty for Browning's terrific performance. She plays Lucy as a puzzle, a damaged kid with a sketchy past who struggles to fill a hole in her identity with work and money. Like her wealthy clients, she's dead inside and has been cursed with a zombie heart that craves excitement instead of brains. She takes a twenty-dollar bill from her first night's wad of cash and burns it in an effort to get inside the head of people who would pay several thousand dollars for a couple hours' worth of semi-nude wait staff.

Towards the end of the film, she decides to place a hidden camera in the "Sleeping Beauty" room to find out what happens during her unconscious encounters. I got the feeling that this wasn't some kind of moral crusade, but a slightly dangerous something-to-do project. Though such an act is strictly forbidden, she probably sees her inevitable punishment as a thrill--or at least a blip on her flat-lining life monitor.**

Browning not only balances vulnerability with a survivalist's callousness, she also demonstrates a keen physical acting ability that I, frankly, couldn't believe. In the scenes where she's inspected and molested by the old men, she committed so fully to the illusion of unconsciousness that I wondered if Leigh had actually knocked her out. I couldn't take my eyes off her, and that had little to do with her being naked.

Incredibly, this is Leigh's debut film, both as a writer and a director. It's an impressive start to what I hope will be a long career of expectations-shattering movies. There's something to be said for getting a strong female perspective on this material (the films I compared Sleeping Beauty to were all conceived of and helmed by men), and though she arrives at some of the same conclusions as her male counterparts, there's at once an unexpected sensitivity and matter-of-fact chilliness here that will, hopefully, wake up a lot of moviegoers.

*This is a direct quote from my id.

**The last shot of the movie is brilliant. If you wonder what Leigh was thinking with that particular choice of a closer--especially considering what happens right before it--ask yourself if there's anything odd about the camera angle.