Sleeping Beauty

August 13, 2011

Julia Leigh, 2011  


Award-winning Australian writer Julia Leigh has squarely dropped the cat among the pigeons with her debut feature, SLEEPING BEAUTY, a film that polarises audiences wherever it plays. Once you’ve seen the film, the various ‘for’ and ‘against’ commentaries could be a good way of measuring your position along the ‘art verses entertainment’ spectrum. If glacial, highly stylised European art cinema (Bunuel, Haneke, Breillat, Seidl) or the likes of David Cronenberg’s Crash, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, or Steven Soderbergh’s little seen but superb The Girlfriend Experience and Bubble leave you cold, Sleeping Beauty is probably not for you. 


While support from Jane Campion has no doubt been considerably helpful, Leigh’s film is a far cry from anything Campion has done in terms of formal and thematic daring. Aptly titled in more ways than one, Sleeping Beauty is a very impressive debut indeed, and regardless of touchstones and influences, Leigh’s is a unique and assured voice. 


There’s a vampiric chill at the heart of Sleeping Beauty, perfectly mirrored by Leigh’s cool palette. Her stylised depiction of privilege and decadence is rigorous and exacting, predominantly via ‘one scene one shot’ long takes with little camera movement. Elegantly composed and beautifully balanced, this study of emotional and spiritual dislocation (set in a world where even a simple touch requires contractual consent) is a high-risk high-wire act, where one false step could have brought the enterprise crashing to the ground. Naysayers of course claim that crash it certainly does, but reading between the lines one can discern expectations for a very different film to the one many of the film's critics actually encountered. 


One such expectation might stem from the use of the term ‘erotic fable’ in promotional material, a misleading (if not patently false) notion at best. The prospect that any viewer would find the film erotically stimulating, given its patently dark and unsettling context, is an even darker and more unsettling one. 


Emily Browning is fearless in the central role, conveying her character’s self-loathing and barely contained anger with subtle economy. In an early scene, she willingly participates in medical research for money, submitting to tubes being fed through her nose and down her gullet. The penetrative nature of this sequence parallels her later role as a ‘sleeping beauty’, where she is paid to be drugged unconscious so that clients of a high-class brothel can have their anonymous (though strictly non-penetrative) way with her. Browning handles the complexity of the role with great skill, and Leigh use her nudity (or more to the point, nakedness) to great confrontational effect, making it clear that the film’s concerns are a million miles away from mere titillation. 


If Browning’s performance fails to win the recognition it deserves, it will only serve to highlight the widespread misunderstanding Leigh’s film has had to contend with. In this respect, Sleeping Beauty inadvertently exposes the corporate influence within contemporary film criticism. If anyone doubts the negative impact of corporate movies on film culture, check out the critical response to this film. Sleeping Beauty asks many questions, but the final, most pertinent question is left for the audience to ponder. 


Originally published in The Lumiere Reader


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