Monday, February 20, 2012

Sleeping Beauty

Porcelain Doll, Immune To Lecherous, Bizarre Appetites

Rachael Blake as Clara and Peter Carroll as one of the men who lechers on Lucy (Emily Browning, center) in Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty". 
IFC Films


Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Monday, February 20
, 2012

Julia Leigh's Australian film "Sleeping Beauty" is a drama whose pretentiousness bleats like a slaughtered lamb on its last legs.  Lucy (played with cool detachment by Emily Browning) is an aimless university student.  Lucy has a part-time job she literally sleeps through on some days.  Lucy is viewed as an object by everyone (including audience and filmmaker) for currency and curiosity's sake, and the camera itself engages in the fetishisms of her flesh, lingering over Lucy's ghoulish porcelain skin and body as if presenting a delicacy for consumption, or a slab of meat for sale at a slave auction, or, if you prefer, a mannequin for shop window display or art gallery.

Sex and sexuality however, are the greatest currency of "Sleeping Beauty".  Early on two men vie for the carnal pleasure of Lucy, who doesn't bat an eyelid at the winner.  ("My vagina is not a temple," Lucy will awkwardly confess later.)  Immaculate and bare, Lucy impresses at an interview to become a lingerie-clad server of drinks at the pleasure of some rich, high-powered and rather discriminating (if not downright bizarre) clientele.  For a price Lucy is drugged on a nightly basis, out cold in a luxuriously ornate bed.  Men can have their way with Lucy, but, says Madam Clara (well-played by Rachael Blake) politely, the house rules are "no penetration allowed". 

Clara's rule is that of "Sleeping Beauty", a film that deals with sexuality and sex on psychological and discreet levels respectively, with sex or its absence as banal ceremony.  The film is an apt metaphor for the "mysteries" of female sexuality and the unattainable and undefined.  Men, some sincerely, others angrily, try to frame, shape, arrange and assess Lucy as if she were a piece of art (clearly the film's position on her).  Ms. Leigh makes sexuality exclusively Lucy's -- defined by her (and other women), never by men.  On a psychological level we never penetrate Lucy's psyche -- certainly not the way we do Brandon's in "Shame".  To that end, Ms. Leigh's puzzling and curious film is Lucy's ally, siding with her, casting a dispassionate eye on its players without casting aspersions on them. 

Lucy's motivations behind her flirtation with sex (we don't see her have any) are entirely unclear beyond the obvious monetary purposes.  Lucy playfully asks a quasi-live-in boyfriend to marry her.  She will endure various pains, some pleasurable, others not.  What, however, is "Sleeping Beauty" saying about Lucy?  That she and other women's sole purpose is to "serve" men for money?  And empty, inadequate, emotionally vacant men by extension?  A high-minded feminism lingers in Ms. Leigh's film, at least in the idea that women have the last word on their own bodies regardless of the invasions and attempted invasions by men and women alike, a point which, of course, is perfectly fine to make.  What isn't fine is the paint-drying way in which "Sleeping Beauty" makes it.

The world's oldest profession is, after all, what it is, but "Sleeping Beauty" merely trifles with the outer edges of sex, and is a classic tease.  The funniest but most macabre moment is when one male customer tells Clara that all the Viagra in the world alone won't enable him to do what he wants with Lucy, yet minutes later he goes Lynchian on the unsuspecting somnambulist with all the force of Dennis Hopper.  Even the film's sympathetic characters (one older man spontaneously quotes lines from Ingeborg Bachmann's anthology The Thirtieth Year) look like faded ornaments, even as Ms. Leigh gives us rare intimate portrait shots of them. 

In a film that is about boundaries that come close to being broken, Ms. Leigh's disciplined camera breaks them cinematically a select few times.  She keeps us at a distance most often, both from the characters and the atmosphere, so as to create a detached experience that floats rather than grounds itself.  There's a Victorian air to Ms. Leigh's film, which is all well and good, but it's an air that constrains the film's own sense of purpose and aspiration.  In the end "Sleeping Beauty" is more pointless than profound.  At times exasperatingly so.

From the start Ms. Leigh's "Beauty" is immersed in ice-cold aesthetic, with people moving slowly and purposefully in and out of a carefully cultivated frame, dominated by views from a fixed camera.  We look, as if observing artwork in an installation.  Ms. Leigh's decor is sparse, meticulous and sometimes stark and stately, but always anything but ingratiating.  "Sleeping Beauty", beyond its aforementioned pretentions, doesn't have much else to flaunt than its attire.  I was wholly disinterested in the film beyond the mystique of Lucy, and that too, grew tiresome after a while.  The film stops travelling forward after the one-hour mark, beginning to lag noticeably as a story possessing any discernable objective.

Ms. Leigh's film could be seen as a sequel, or at least Nicole Kidman's Alice character's rejoinder, to "Eyes Wide Shut" -- the waking dream about flirting with sex from her perspective, the perspective some film critics were begging for 13 years ago.  There are notable similarities (a scene late on with a woman sleeping in a train bursts with sexual tension and is akin to Tom Cruise's almost-moment of necrophilia.)  If only coincidentally, Lucy is a redhead like Ms. Kidman.  Furthermore, constant tension exists between sex and death, notably in two scenes.  "Sleeping Beauty" is often dreamlike, and its stark opening scene and soft white-light brightness and austerity looks like pure dream factory.  The drugs Lucy does could also facilitate a trancelike or dream state elegance in her and by extension the film.  (Based on the film's styling Ms. Leigh seems evasive, if not equivocal on that issue.)  Even the other lingerie-clad servants in Madam Clara's mansion move and look the way those masked ladies did in the ceremonies at the mansion in Mr. Kubrick's epic -- rhythmically, slavishly, superficially and without appreciable passion or urgency. 

"Sleeping Beauty", not to be confused with Catherine Breillat's wonderfully razor-sharp and enthralling "The Sleeping Beauty" (both were released in the U.S. in 2011), is based less on the classic fairy tale than on aspects of The Claiming Of Sleeping Beauty, one of Anne Rice's trilogy of books on the sexual exploits of Beauty, flaunting bisexual tension and sensuality as Ms. Rice's book does.  In Ms. Leigh's drama women are at least curious about, or want Lucy as much as some men crave her.  Lucy's female boss is intrigued by her in a way that suggests sexual interest despite her frustrations with Lucy, and another woman does all but proposition Lucy.  At the same time Lucy is indifferent to male suitors and their designs.  Lucy, an adolescent, is a modern day Mona Lisa at the most rigorous of times and may end up growing up faster than she wants to.  Her commitment to any serious emotional relationship to a man is as trivial and inflexible as the vacant men who frequent her boudoir at Clara's.

Clara is Lucy's mother figure, the Jeanne Moreau to Anne Parillaud's Nikita in Luc Besson's film but with more participation in her subject's life.  Clara shapes Lucy's path and gently patronizes the men who would cavort with Lucy.  Clara's enabling and neutralizing at the same time, about the same effect "Sleeping Beauty" has overall.

With: Ewen Leslie, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood, Hugh-Keays Byrne, Hannah Bella Bowden, Bridgette Barrett, Benita Collings, Eden Falk, Mirrah Foulkes, Henry Nixon.

"Sleeping Beauty" is not rated by the Motion Picture Association Of America but contains male and female full frontal nudity, sexual content, sensuality, strong language and one or two moments some may find unsettling.  The film's running time is one hour and 43 minutes. 

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