SLEEPING BEAUTY (Julia Leigh, 2011)
Equal pieces haunting, detached, and utterly surprising- Julia Leigh's film debut manages to balance art with psychology, forcing us to probe within our inner selves our darkest fantasies and lingering repressed emotions.
Emily Browning is a revelation. Since her debut in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS opposite Jim Carrey and in her dramatic turn in THE UNINVITED, Browning has shown astounding potential. But not since here in SLEEPING BEAUTY has she proved how far she's willing to go as an actress. With her completely naked about half the running time in this movie, being subjected to voyeurism and many other twisted desires, Browning proves her caliber as an actress by showing how confident she is about her body, and equating that with her inspired performance as a liberated young woman who is so detached from anything, or anyone. In fact, I have never seen a perfectly drawn character more detached than Browning's Lucy in recent memory. The film, written and directed by Leigh, conveys a mood that parallels another acclaimed film written and directed by a female filmmaker, Sofia Coppola's LOST IN TRANSLATION. The alienation in both films is strikingly similar, which is exactly the desired effect of the filmmaker, so it is safe to say SLEEPING BEAUTY is LOST IN TRANSLATION minus the humor.
Leigh also successfully juxtaposes beauty with filth; the beauty of a young naked woman in total submission versus the filth of older men and the unknown territories of their psyche.
More on the film's alienating effect: the film is separated by a number of fade to blacks, which leaves the viewer watching a series of seemingly disjointed vignettes of Lucy's life. As opposed to seamless, fast-paced editing, which is mostly effective in action films, the employ of fade to blacks creates an effect of distance between the viewer and the subject, which can also state the main character's feeling of detachment with the things in her life. However, Lucy is not without a heart. Make no mistake, she is stirringly human. The final scene in which all repressed emotions come out puts the cherry on top in this artistic canvas.
There is also a differentiation between what is seen, and what is not seen. We partly see what the old men would do, or would want to do with Lucy. But what makes the film a psychological headtrip, and therefore a must-see is the scenes that are left to the imagination. What happens when she sleeps?
Leigh exercises restraint in her storytelling. The number one rule of the brothel/ escort service itself is restraint: no penetration. This makes the deal more seductive, adventurous even. Everything is foreplay. But seduction is not the desired effect of the film. We are not led to be stimulated, but rather to observe and probably sympathize with Lucy, or even with the male clients.
Pier Paolo Pasolini's SALO (OR THE 120 DAYS OF SODOM) and even Stanley Kubrick's EYES WIDE SHUT comes to mind, with the secret sexual activities involving privileged people and big, creepy houses.
Lucy is such a great ironic character: she's willing to do anything or explore the unknown. The madame, Clara (Rachel Blake) tells her, "Your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina will be a temple" to which Lucy replies, "My vagina is not a temple". Lucy's had sex for money before, and she's ready to do it again, but when she's offered a similar job sans the actual penetration, she quickly accepts, disregarding the fact that she will have no knowledge whatsoever of what will be done with her body. No explanation is given as to the "no penetration" rule, yet in a way it protects the woman who submits to her client.
Nevertheless, Lucy grows curious of what happens when she sleeps. From the first half of the film where we see Lucy as detached, seemingly emotionless and fleeting, comes a Lucy who suddenly wants a stable relationship and the truth. The paradigm shift from a young lady who juggles a lot of jobs (she must really be that deep in debt) to an actual human being who feels is mesmerizing, and revelatory.
If this is enough information for you to satisfy your curiosity, then go see the movie. If not, then read the Wikipedia article. The plot is all there, in full detail, spoilers and all.