On Sleeping Beauty, Julia Leigh’s Thesis Film

12/01/2011 4:00 AM |

Sleeping Beauty
Directed by Julia Leigh

Sleeping Beauty, the directorial debut by the novelist Julia Leigh about a broke college girl who finds herself selling her body in an Eyes Wide Shut-style high-end whore mansion, seems as if it was developed from a very strong three-sentence thesis that emerges in the film’s last few scenes. That thesis can be summed up like this: “To be a woman is to sleepwalk through endless disrespect and abuse aimed, not towards you, but all women. And this bitterness or hatred has its root in men’s resentment over their sexual need combined with economic equality that keeps women needy. Furthermore, as a woman, if you wake up to face the reality of the man who needs to lord his power over a woman—all women—because of feeling powerless while naked and vulnerable in her presence, if you face the pathetic desperation of that hatred head on, the only thing to do is scream.”

When Lucy (Emily Browning), the milky-skinned redhead with a crescent moon physique, who has been paid handsomely to “sleep” while rich johns do anything except penetration to her ( including calling her bitch, ashing in her ear and dragging her limp body around in a rage), finally does open her eyes to face this, she sees the horror, the horror, and screams. This is a very strong thesis, but it’s not a good movie.

The film is well-written, self-consciously so. The dialogue and elliptical action unfold like a good New Yorker short story, including the annoyances implied by that descriptor. Particularly irksome is Lucy’s “chummy”-signalling banter with her nerdy male best friend (Ewen Leslie) who eats cereal with vodka while voicing poignant metaphors about their lives found from watching animal nature shows on TV. And while there seems to be a visual allusion towards the masked and topless creepy mystery of Eyes Wide Shut, here the ladies of the night resemble bondage versions of Robert Palmer video girls; there is no eerie fantasy, just tacky black latex looks that signal “sexy.” Camera placement seems to have not been given much thought, except for one daring direct address that doesn’t come off well. The quiet sound design is stellar, though, and keeps it watchable. (The real mystery, for me, became, how did she get this particular sound designer who is so much more skilled than anyone else in this production?)

The feeble afterthought of execution is not the only problem in this film that seems to have been developed from a thesis and worked its way backwards into the story. The most unnerving aspect of this elliptically literary film is that nothing before that final thesis statement—that scream—registers as real nor even as a metaphor with any resonance. Prostitution and rape are confusingly conflated, which is a sneakily conservative idea that takes away any sense of power for a woman in either situation. Also, simulated sex (without penetration) is not sex. Simulated rape is not rape. Even viewing filmed sex (with penetration) is closer to watching an empowered form of prostitution than it is to getting a voyeuristic sense of power over a woman. (In fact, much of acting could be considered at least metaphorically an empowered form of prostitution, and so could much of the experience of all women as sexual objects, as Siew Hwo Beh stated in her 1972 Women & Film article on Godard’s 1962 Vivre sa vie, which played with both those themes.) But watching a woman being paid to not react as someone throws her limp body around a room, particularly in a film with an anemically anti-erotic yet titillating tone, feels like voyeurism with all empowerment in the equation drained; it feels like watching abuse. But, perhaps this is just a very good metaphor for the limp and choiceless position of most actresses in 2011.

Opens December 2

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