SLEEPING BEAUTY. Starring Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Peter Forrest, Chris Haywood, and Hugh Keays-Byrne. Directed by Julia Leigh. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong sexual themes, nudity and coarse language). 97 min.
Not to be confused with the animated film classic, “Sleeping Beauty”, this erotic tale tells the story of a struggling University student, Lucy (Emily Browning), who is put to sleep for sessions with wealthy, elderly men. They can do anything they like with her, but are told they can’t penetrate her body.
The sex life of the young escort, code-named Sara in her profession, is as devoid of warmth as the men, who subject her to their desires. This film shocked viewers at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it was screened in the festival’s special competition section. For a lot of the movie, Emily Browning is naked, and she is surrounded by nudity, male and female. It is a courageous performance, but it makes for instant type-casting in the not-so-soft-core pornographic market. The film has the patronage of its co-producer, Jane Campion (director of “The Piano”), who introduced the movie glowingly at Cannes.
Browning is austere and distant as Sara, and the film uses coldness to expose us to the desires of others, who are attracted to her. Among those, is the restrained Clara (Rachael Blake), the woman who puts her into drugged sleep for three spent men (Peter Forrest, Chris Haywood, and Hugh Keays-Byrne), who are her clients. Peter Forrest gives an extraordinary soliloquy, addressed straight to the camera, that provides an important clue to the film’s tragic climax, and two of the men treat Sara in a completely degrading way. The film presents women as submissive objects. Sara lies in bed to serve the desires of paying, male clients, but she becomes traumatized by what might have happened while she was asleep. Despite coming to Clara’s escort business from restless promiscuity and drug-taking, Lucy has always been aware of what occurred during sex. Now, Sara isn’t.
The sum total of the impressions the film leaves behind is that the film supplies a considerable dose of perversity. At one level, it has a fairy-tale quality that views prostitution in a fantasy way, which is an intriguing variant on the old 1959 Disney classic. Sara’s submissiveness, however, is as manipulative as it is perverse. Every sexual attraction has its moments of uneven balance, where the human condition shifts the fulcrum across the sexes, away from total even-handedness. This film shifts that balance to the point of pathology, and in so doing presents a distorted view of male and female attraction. It is impossible to know who the victim in this film is, and who is the perpetrator, and for what reasons Sara chose to comply.
All that Jane Campion is associated with is well worth seeing, and this is the first film directed by Australia’s own Julia Leigh. True to expectation, the film creates an ethereal quality that gives the look of high art to what appears on the screen. The cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson is excellent, and the production designs are aesthetically impressive. But it is art at a human cost. This is basically a movie about sexual fetishism. It is meant to excite, and it plays with gender in a distorted way. It is challenging and disturbing, adventurous and destructive. Constructed to show frustration and desire, the film has no messages about moral virtue.
The film has technical prowess, and Leigh’s direction is absorbingly chilly, and commandingly intense. However, the movie lingers in one’s mind as dehumanizing in a disturbing way. It is a film to forgive, if not to forget.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out June 23, 2011.