[This is a reprint of my review from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Sleeping Beauty opens tomorrow in limited release.]
Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty invites us into a world which unintentionally undoes its own effect. Ordinarily, the sex acts and humiliation would shock us, but we’re asked to accept a reality in which every character passively accepts these depraved circumstances. The characters have perfectly justifiable reasons for their detachment but their ennui carries over to the audience due to Leigh’s sparse approach, seductive visuals, and Emily Browning’s brave but withdrawn performance. We become numb like the film’s protagonist and we disconnect from any emotional attachment.
Sleeping Beauty opens under the pretense that Lucy (Emily Browning) is desperate for money. She’s working four jobs including prostitution and she still can’t pay her rent. Either she has the worst student loan payment plan of all time or she’s a peculiar kind of submissive. Lucy isn’t a character who wants to be in control by being out of control, but wants to emotionally disappear from the world by quietly serving others. One of the clearest examples of her servitude is when she’s offered a job by Clara (Rachael Blake). Clara’s business offers wealthy clients a highly specific form of sexual service. In the scene, Lucy is examined in a dark and disturbing way that’s highly reminiscent of when potential buyers went to slave markets and inspected people as if they were cattle.
At first, Lucy is just a lingerie-clad servant, but then she’s asked to engage in an even more peculiar (and lucrative) fetish. Lucy willingly allows herself to be drugged and have wealthy old men do whatever they want to her while she sleeps (“except penetration”, as Clara reminds her clients). It’s not much distance from the stupor Lucy’s usually in except for her time with Birdman (Ewen Leslie), someone for whom she cares and not merely serves.
Unlike Shame, Lucy’s meaningless sex isn’t an addiction tearing her apart nor does Leigh attempt to show her reaching new depths of depravity. Instead, Leigh wants to keep the tone nice and even in order to show the monotony, coldness, and emptiness of Lucy’s life. The movie plays almost entirely without music, uses long takes filled with vivid colors and muted performances, and Leigh’s direction barely speaks above a whisper. We are voyeurs to this unusual world but Sleeping Beauty could care less whether we’re watching or not.
Browning plays perfectly to the film’s silent void so it’s difficult to tell if it’s a “good” performance. Lucy doesn’t play a wide range of emotions and she’s not supposed to. Sleeping Beauty forbids her from even providing subtle hints to how the character’s feeling except when there’s a clear break in her pristine exterior. She’s a porcelain doll for the world to use as it sees fit and her central drive is to feel nothing and she only gets to show any personality and vitality during her time with Birdman. But while it’s not a big performance, it is undeniably a fearless one. Browning lays herself bare and then she lets naked, disgusting old men climb use her body in disturbing ways.
The movie perfectly mirrors its protagonist and does its best to put us in her mindset. Sleeping Beauty is outwardly cold and captivating but its soul is dark, twisted, and in the distance.