Sleeping Beauty (2011), written and directed by novelist Julia Leigh, follows college student Lucy (Emily Browning) as she dispassionately meanders through life. She begins working as an erotic silver service waitress, which leads to a new position where she sleeps in a comatose state next to paying clients. Sleeping Beauty will stay with you, whether you decide you like the film or not.
Liamfer: My own interpretation of the classic tale of Sleeping Beauty is tenuous, but relates to my understanding of this film. In the old story I read a metaphor for a traumatized woman who shuts down emotionally, but is brought back by becoming a mother. While this movie doesn’t deal with parenthood, it definitely features a female protagonist who starts the film emotionally shut off from the world. This is reflected in the early film style, with disconnected scenes and clinical detachment. It is well into the film before we even learn her name.
She asks guys to marry her with the same dispassionate bluntness that she uses to pick up a guy in a bar or literally burn money. She occasionally seems to parrot the emotional state of others, but it seems like a game until there’s something she wants. Late in the film she interrupts medical research testing for an important phone call, and rather than reflecting the irritation of the researcher she tries to be nice and assure him. The scene after that she is in the drug-induced sleep state and a cruel client tries unsuccessfully to provoke a reaction out of her in terrible ways. Two scenes later she cries at her only friend’s suicide. Later still she is fascinated by a woman sleeping on a train, then tries to find out what happens to her own sleeping body. In the final scenes when she is screaming in raw agony while the two other people in the room are facing away from her, it is a level of emotion foreign to her character at the start of the film. She is no longer sleepwalking through life.
Marnifer: Okay Julia Leigh, what the eff does this movie mean? Clearly it is a giant metaphor. For…something. I have no idea what. I feel like this is full of personal symbolism where we aren’t privy to the references. What is Leigh exploring about the body, about allowing one’s physical self to be manipulated without having input or control? Is this a cultural editorial or a personal one? Is it making a comment on society, just on Lucy, or both? What is the significance of beginning with the tube down the throat scene?
The instances of Lucy’s drug-induced sleep work don’t happen until much later in the film, indicating the title is more of a metaphor and Liamfer’s theory about her emotional sleep-to-waking journey is worth considering. I wonder how much this film has to do with women’s bodies as men’s playgrounds and property. I have more questions than answers. That was clearly part of the director’s intention. Additionally, this movie is sexual, but not sexy, and that’s definitely part of the point. Julia Leigh didn’t make a porn. She made a movie for your thinky parts.
Liamfer: This reminds me a lot of Kubrick or Polanski films. Uncomfortable, psychological, fascinating, and beautifully shot. There are a few shots in this film that I would recommend to actors or film students. Late in the film, the way she groggily gets out of bed, walks to the urn, and returns to bed is perhaps the antithesis to Steven McQueen stepping out of the Mustang in Bullitt — supremely vulnerable and unsteady rather than supremely cool and confident. For many of the sleep sequences (where she is being threatened or thrown around the room) I keep expecting to find out Browning really was drugged or using botox to suppress her facial reactions, but it sounds like that was just incredible acting. This is a cinematic masterpiece, even if it took me several days to decide if I liked it, and more than a week of thought to come up with an interpretation. I struggled the same way with Polanski’s Chinatown or Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, knowing that I had just seen something terrific, but not knowing what the hell I just watched.
Marnifer: You have no barometer to help you understand Lucy or her actions. She should have enough money to pay rent but seems put out by the obligation to pay her share. When she takes the sex work job she starts earning much more, but we watch her burn money instead of paying rent and it makes no damn sense.
Aside from one complicated relationship with her depressive buddy Birdmann (Ewen Leslie) she doesn’t relate to people or have strong ties to anyone. She lies. She works constantly but seems listless and uninspired. Clearly, there is a whole universe going on inside Lucy’s head that we are closed off from. Why she does what she does is a complete mystery. Is she depressed? Does she have low self worth? Is she sexually deviant and interested in pushing the boundaries? Birdmann is the only character who makes Lucy seem human. She clearly cares about him, checks up on him, and is devastated that he wants to kill himself. Except for the very end, her scenes with Birdmann are the only place we get to see her have emotion.
Liamfer: I’m sorry, but did she just pour Birdmann a bowl of vodka and birdseed, or was that vodka and granola? Either way, I couldn’t help noticing that he never tasted it. This film has a lot of WTF moments, and to be honest the first time the entire film seemed like a big WTF.
Marnifer: There is no true story to speak of. Things just kind of happen, and there’s no apex to the proceedings. The “climax” scene has Lucy showing the most emotion she has the entire film, and of course it’s traumatic to wake up next to a dead person when you’ve just watched a close friend die…but what the hell did it mean? It wasn’t the culmination of a story. So clearly we have to think about “story,” and what makes a movie, a bit differently here. It is not a character study, because you learn precious little about Lucy and her motivations or internal life. It absolutely works as a style exercise. Everything is lush and exquisitely interesting to look at. Dialogue is sparse so you are directed to engage with the imagery and the visual enigmas it offers.
Liamfer: The starkness of this film leaves a lot of it open to interpretation. For example, in one scene she responds to being fired by saying, “Thank you.” Is she really thankful to be rid of a miserable job? Did she want to leave, but could not bring herself to quit? Did she have some revelation brought on by the experience? Was it because an old acquaintance told her she should try to be courteous, and she thought courtesy meant saying “Thank you”? There are dozens of ways to interpret this scene, and no explanation.
Marnifer: There are also the visually confusing moments. Even as a first time director she is clearly talented at camera framing so it feels like the lack of establishing shots and certain close ups is to purposely confuse us. When Lucy plops onto a couch in a room you’ve never seen before it takes a later scene and a wider shot for you to realize this is the same house she’s sharing with her roommates. In a later scene it appears she’s removed a sleeping pill from her mouth, but the shot is from far away so you really can’t see what she’s doing.
Liamfer: She had concealed a small camera in her mouth, which she placed on or next to the urn. We see footage from that camera before the end credits, and her purchasing the camera from an incompetent salesmen before the scene on the train. The sleeping drug was spooned into her tea. She is clearly sleepy/intoxicated when she stumbles to place the camera.
Marnifer: Clara (Rachael Blake), the madam, is an intriguing character. She seemed at times like Adele from Dollhouse — feeling a compassion for her clients, like she is helping them, providing them a safe space to express their sexual compulsions. But she also seems profoundly sad and almost at the verge of telling Lucy to run away from the business. I wonder if she felt as deeply for Client #1 when she was helping him die as Lucy did when she was with her friend as he died.
Liamfer: With this film and Sucker Punch, Emily Browning has picked two really interesting, complex films that far too many people wrote off as sexploitation. Sleeping Beauty is challenging and worth seeing, with phenomenal acting by Browning especially.