Lucy (played by Emily Browning) is a a young university student who does a variety of odd jobs to support her education. She volunteers as a test subject in a lab, a waitress in a cafe, a copy girl in an office, and sits in a high class bar offering herself as an escort. One day, she’s interviewed by Carol (played by Rachael Blake), and ends up doing erotic freelance work in which she is required to be in a drug-induced sleep in bed alongside paying customers. Things ensue.
I saw the trailer for this film on Apple Trailers and read that it played in Cannes. The trailer has all these film critic quotes paying it compliments so I decided to check it out.
The film asks the audience to be afraid for Lucy, that somehow sleeping side these men will somehow rob her innocence. Admittedly I was afraid for her the first two times, only because she is a girl who’s voluntarily put to sleep while these customers are brought in to do anything they want to her except intercourse. After all, it’s only a verbal agreement. Nothing is stopping them from putting it in. By the third time, I was not afraid for her any longer. The first two sleeping sessions should have built up to the third, but it did not. My chivalry and sense of danger had dissipated and I needed more from the story to care about this girl in this horrible situation. Then I realized, she’s not innocent at all if it’s her third time. And I found this problematic with the movie.
We are given hints of Lucy’s backstory is several scenes. It’s not given with exposition but they are so few and far between it leaves way too many gaps for the audience to construct a real sense of pathos for Lucy. It creates more questions. What’s Lucy’s major? What’s her dream? Why is she financially independent? This is a case of a director being too subtle for her own good. It was as if Julia Leigh was aware of giving exposition in a story and wanted to leave the appropriate amount of empty space for the audience to imagine her past, but ended up leaving too much.
Emily Browning’s role in Sucker Punch and this film reminds me of how the young Natalie Portman used to have a penchant for Lolita-like roles. Part of Browning’s acting presence in Sleeping Beauty is her titillating the audience with her youthful physicality. I was very aware of that in this film because at times I was titillated and other times watching her made me uncomfortable. She had to bear all for this performance and it’s too bad because nothing was said with the nudity. It’s not her fault, she’s a competent actress who is doing what her director is telling her to do. It begs the question, what was Julia Leigh’s objective with this story?
The cinematography attempts an empty creepy tension through its wide still shots, it succeeds part of the time depending on what’s going on, but part of the time it is quite bland. There’s some nice art direction in these locations. To the film’s credit, the wide shots manage to build up to one very effective close-up when an old customer enters with Carol, sits on the bedside next to a sleeping Lucy and tells this very psychotic story straight into the camera. I was creeped out by the old man so much I could not follow the details of what his story was about. What scared me was the prospect of what he was about to do once he was alone with Lucy. But overall, swinging from titillating to creepy to bland, there was nothing consistent enough to grip me.
Nudity can be powerful in a story when used correctly in the right context, examples such as Monica Bellucci in Irreversible, Tang Wei in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution or even Elena Anaya in Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In. I thought about what Julia Leigh wanted to say with the nudity. At one point, it seemed to be the lifeless clinical nudity akin to how Stanley Kubrick used nudity in Eyes Wide Shut and A Clockwork Orange. Is the director using nudity as a symbol of women selling their souls for money through her almost-prostitution-like job? And then I snapped myself out of that notion. “No no no…” I told myself, “You’re not getting away with this.” That’s what Sleeping Beauty was trying to be, but not what it achieved.