SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011)
University student Lucy (Emily Browning) is a quiet risk taker; she has some part time work to pay her way but needs more income and takes a job as a Sleeping Beauty at a private and discreet 'Sleeping Beauty chamber' inside a country mansion, under the supervision of Clara (Rachel Blake). Elderly men with money come here to seek an erotic experience that requires Lucy's absolute submission - and she is sedated for the duration of each session. Lucy gets increasingly anxious to know what happens to her when she is asleep. One of the clients has well prepared and unexpected plans for his session.
Review by Louise Keller:
Tantalising and erotic, Julia Leigh's debut feature combines purity and stillness to jolt us into an intriguing world of debauchery. There's a fascination for death in the story and here its echo is never far away, eventually shattering the peaceful slumber of innocence. Inspired by a nightmare, this is a poetic work with dark complexities layered under the fairy tale plot. Beautifully shot by Geoffrey Simpson, there's a voyeuristic element to the film as we become captive to the pale, porcelain beauty of Emily Browning, who shifts effortlessly from the fantasy realm of Sucker Punch to this timeless story of lost innocence which is far more than physical.
In the film's opening scenes, we are shown the extreme lengths to which Browning's university student Lucy will go to make ends meet. If you have a gag reflex, don't watch the first scene in which Lucy allows her body to be used in medical research when a tube is inserted down her throat. She also wipes down tables, allows her chastity to be compromised at the toss of a coin and endures tedium at the photocopier. There is no anchor to ground her anywhere; the only affection she shows is to her alcoholic, ailing friend Birdman (Ewen Leslie).
Rachael Blake is wonderful as the regal Clare who describes what is involved in becoming a lingerie-wearing silver service waitress with world-weariness. Lucy is assured her vagina will not be penetrated. We are not likely to forget the first evening, when Lucy is told to wear lipstick whose colour matches her labia and when she (and other girls in various states of undress), serves caviar, quail and truffles to guests at a black-tie private dinner. It's the beginning of an entrée into a bizarre world. When Clare offers Lucy a new, lucrative opportunity to allow her drug-induced body to be used by her clients, Lucy doesn't hesitate. It is no longer just about the money: she has become addicted to the life, and risk taking.
We are filled with anticipation as Clara pours tea from Royal Doulton porcelain in a ceremonial ritual before leading Lucy into the pastel bedroom. As she sleeps, we watch - as three very different encounters take place. They are tender, sadistically abusive and careless. Peter Carroll and Chris Haywood's performances are brave - and memorable. Carroll's overlong monologue fails in the purpose to which it aspires.
Leigh keeps us at arm's length from the characters and although we never feel as though we understand Lucy, we do care what happens to her. We can see what she is thinking as she watches a sleeping passenger in a commuter train. Inevitably, her curiosity grows and she needs to know what happens while she is sleeping. Tension mounts and the eerie stillness of the pale, lifeless form of the sleeping beauty is shattered. It's a mesmerizing film and a stunning debut for Leigh, although the ending disappoints and leaves us adrift.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
From an audacious and intriguing concept, Julia Leigh has fashioned a quietly edgy debut feature, cobbled together from real life anecdotes, her subjects of interest and her experiences. Not her own experience as an erotic 'sleeper' but those she has heard about, fused together with deaths in her circle, according to her Director's Notes. It makes for a slightly lumpy juxtaposing, and she stubs her cinematic toe on her fascination with death but the Cannes selection committee has encouraged her by selecting it for Competition in 2011.
A novelist, Leigh has a well honed imagination; she has transported the novelist's freedom to give the reader subtle signals, not always full explanations, into filmmaking. This robs the film of some its potency and of full audience satisfaction. A vocalised suicide note and an intellectual distancing are flaws driven home by the under-developed ending.
Emily Browning is totally credible as the risk taking Lucy, who is brash and impulsive to the point of being a danger to herself. We see this trait in several scenes, never more plainly than when she is told by Clara (magnificent performance by Rachel Blake) in the course of her interview for a job as a silver service waitress, that she will be provided with lingerie - but can rest assured there will be no penetration.
The film has a wonderfully eerie tone, except for the scenes where Lucy is cleaning cafe tables or collating office papers in menial part time jobs, or befriending a dying Birdman (Ewen Leslie) whose strange and melancholy presence in the film is perhaps to show Lucy really cares for vulnerable people.
For me the film works as a fascinating idea, on just one level: the scenario and its deep resonances with the human condition. I buy it as a poetic essay about our strangeness, but it's a bit flimsy and stark in a way that lessens the idea. This is intentional, surely, because Leigh hardly allows any music to underscore the action.
I salute the unique vision, but I feel cheated that I felt so little emotion in a film that has such vast emotional potential.
Published first in the Sun-Herald
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JULIA LEIGH: PRE-CANNES INSPIRATION
SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011) (MA15+)
CAST: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood
PRODUCER: Jessica Brentnall
DIRECTOR: Julia Leigh
SCRIPT: Julia Leigh
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Geoffrey Simpson ACS
EDITOR: Nick Meyers ACE
MUSIC: Ben Frost
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Annie Beauchamp
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Transmission
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 23, 2011