When it's released on DVD, the Australian film Sleeping Beauty may have to carry a warning sticker: "Not to be confused with the Disney cartoon".
Julia Leigh's drama is, in a way, about an unearthly princess – but the connection with the fairy tale is oblique. By the same token, while Sleeping Beauty carries all the trappings of a glossy erotic drama, anyone expecting a titillating update of Belle de Jour or The Story of O should stand by to be perplexed by this glacial, cussedly enigmatic art film.
Sleeping Beauty comes endorsed by the director Jane Campion, though the film is closer to Catherine Breillat's cerebral meta-porn outings. Leigh is a novelist, and this is her first time as writer-director. I have no idea whether Sleeping Beauty is of a piece with Leigh's books The Hunter and Disquiet – but this elegant oddity, which is disquieting for sure, certainly makes me want to read them.
Emily Browning plays Lucy, a student who funds her studies through several jobs. She works in a café, makes endless photocopies in an office, and also spends time with businessmen in a bar, presumably for money – meeting their leering advances with provocative self-possession. In her private life, she has a strange relationship, tender and chaste, with a bookish young man named Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), whom she visits to share breakfast cereals and vodka.
Then Lucy signs up as a silver service waitress at exclusive dinners for elderly roués. She's interviewed by the svelte and sinister Clara (the terrifically imposing Rachael Blake), who gives her the job description – lingerie provided and "very heavy penalties for any breaches of discretion".
The dinners are staffed by a cadre of young women dressed as if for an S&M fashion shoot. The poker-faced seriousness with which this business is conducted might come across as painfully arty, although one suspects that, to a degree, Leigh is taking the piss, albeit so dryly that it's hard to be sure. There's certainly a tart absurdity in the juxtaposition of peekaboo bras and the solemn intonation of "Galantine of quail stuffed with black truffle on a nest of fried leek and herbs".
Things get stranger when Lucy is enlisted to slumber while three clients, one after another, have their way with her – although we don't entirely find out what their ways are, and neither, crucially, does the sleeping Lucy. One man lifts her up like a wrestler; another treats her rather less gallantly; but the strangest is an exquisitely poised, white-bearded gent (Peter Carroll). When he lies down with Lucy, there's both creepiness and poignancy in the juxtaposition of her youthful nudity and his aged, equally naked dignity – an unsettling Death and the Maiden scenario. Before he undresses, however, he turns to the camera and regales us at length with a précis of a story by Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann.
The film is spiked with several such digressions – another being an impromptu talk on the habits of a marsupial mouse, the Sandhill Dunnart. There are other mysteries. Why does Lucy attend a lecture on the Asian game Go? Is her mother really an alcoholic who runs an astrology hotline, or is Lucy (or Leigh) having us on?
Altogether, you wonder how much Leigh is mocking her subject and her audience – dryly sending up the "lifestyle de Sade" scenario and our voyeuristic yen for such pervy-chic trappings. The film's controlled elegance, however, suggests that Leigh ultimately takes her subject very seriously. There's something hugely unsettling about the film's glassy detachment, its long takes, the way the camera glides, as if sedated like Lucy, round her ceremonial bedroom. The film is elegantly but sparely designed, and fabulously photographed by Geoffrey Simpson, each tableau-like shot resembling a pristinely executed art video.
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The single strangest element, however, is Emily Browning herself. Her looks – the sort usually described as "innocent" – contrast strikingly with Lucy's hard edge, her sexual and social confidence. But the porcelain-doll features are weirdly blank, and we must read into them what we will. Lucy's opacity emphasises that – when she's awake, at least – she's absolutely in control of her fate, however much she's treated as an object. The role is all the more troubling if you saw the same actress playing a fetishised figure in the witless action-porn outing Sucker Punch. At the very least, Sleeping Beauty offers a corrective to that.
Overall, Leigh's debut has style, strangeness and distinction – yet for all its icy brilliance, Sleeping Beauty feels incomplete rather than truly enigmatic. But it's an intriguing piece, tantalising rather than a tease; it should keep you awake, at least.
Jonathan Romney contemplates the perils of child-rearing in We Need to Talk about Kevin
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