It’s the second day at the Cannes Film Festival and already the main competition is very hit-or-miss. Even Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen’s perfectly innocuous new romantic comedy and the festival’s opening night film, is proving to be weirdly divisive. The question I’m hearing most about Allen’s decent but unremarkable fantasy is no longer whether it’s a good or bad film but just how good it is (as masterpiece or just ok?). It’s an incredibly tedious argument to be sure but it’s also indicative of how high expectations are at this year’s festival.
And with good reason. Australian novelist-turned-writer/director Julia Leigh has knocked one out of the park with Sleeping Beauty, an incredibly dense and astonishingly precise drama about the demystification of sex, which Leigh treats presents as the ultimate mystery. Sleeping Beauty is competing for the Camera D’Or award, which will go to the best first feature film. In it, Lucy (Emily Browning), a ferociously prepossessed teenager, works as a prostitute that services a very particular kind of wealthy clientele. Lucy’s made to dress, make herself up and act just so in order to make herself more appealing to her patrons. Eventually, her services become so indispensable that she’s asked to take part in a bizarre, ritualized sex game.
Leigh positions Lucy’s exploration of sex as an individual expression of a universal drive towards turning sex, which is never actually enacted in the film, into something more than just an act of repetitive mechanics. Both Lucy and her clients anticipate that their sex acts can’t affect them (Leigh makes a point of reminding the viewer that Lucy’s services never require her to be penetrated) so they look for transformative experiences in controlled circumstances. Sex in Sleeping Beauty is a snake eating its own tail: participants the only way to gain control is by giving in to the impotent demands of others.
We Need to Talk About Kevin’s purposefully inconsistent lucid-nightmare structure prevents it from ever achieving a successfully oppressive mood. In spite of its fantastic pop-art visuals, the film frequently buckles underneath the weight of its labored and schematic story. It doesn’t move, it just grinds along until it stops. I wish I was as awestruck by Kevin’s formal control as its staunch defenders seem to be.