Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Objectification Is Also in the Eye of the Beheld
By A. O. SCOTT
Published: December 1, 2011
Sexuality can be a puzzle — just ask Carl Jung, the kinky and conflicted psychoanalyst played by Michael Fassbender in “A Dangerous Method,” or Brandon, the sex addict played by Michael Fassbender in “Shame.” Or, if you insist on exploring the complexities of eros in a new movie not starring Mr. Fassbender, you might check out “Sleeping Beauty,” Julia Leigh’s sly and elusive film, which is itself something of a puzzle.
Lucy (Emily Browning) is a broke and bored Australian university student scraping by in the usual unromantic ways: collating copies in a dreary office, scrubbing down tables at a cheap restaurant, offering herself as an occasional research subject in a science lab. But then, after responding to a classified ad in a free campus newspaper, she is recruited into a world of lucrative and highly specialized sex work.
In outline, this might sound like either a grim cautionary tale or a prurient adventure in exploitation. And “Sleeping Beauty” does now and then take note of the bleak and lonely aspects of Lucy’s circumstances.
Much more often, the camera lingers over Ms. Browning’s unclothed form, inviting the viewer’s eye to survey every inch of her milky and unblemished skin. There is a measure of soft-core titillation in this, for sure, but Ms. Leigh observes Lucy’s body and what happens to it with a dreamy detachment that is seductive and unnerving in equal measure. As well as a little ridiculous. Though the tone is quiet and the pacing serenely unhurried, “Sleeping Beauty” is at times almost screamingly funny, a pointed, deadpan surrealist sex farce that Luis Buñuel might have admired.
After an arch interview with an icy, aristocratic blonde named Clara (Rachael Blake), Lucy is given a job that combines lingerie modeling and catering. Decked out in a brassiere, stockings, heels and garters — and with explicit instructions about the color of her lipstick — she pours wine at a geriatric dinner party, while other women, with darker hair, heavier makeup and more revealing outfits, dish out quail and caviar.
Afterward, Lucy serves brandy from a crystal decanter while her co-workers arrange themselves like human furniture for the guests. This tableau of absolute possession — in which elderly, wealthy men surround themselves with compliant, silent, mostly naked and much younger women — is less predatory than pathetic, as if Ms. Leigh were rolling her eyes at the portentous, unsmiling eroticism on display at the parties in “Eyes Wide Shut.”
Then Lucy is promoted. Clara ritualistically prepares some kind of narcotic tea, and as Lucy slumbers in an elegantly appointed bedroom she is visited by men we recognize from the earlier soirees. The rules of the establishment forbid intercourse, but this hardly lessens the feeling of menace and potential violation.
The clients, however, do not seem to want to recapture their sexual potency as much as to mourn its loss.
Lucy’s blank, smooth, passive body is a screen on which they project their desires, and Ms. Browning’s otherworldly face, with its wide eyes and heavy lips, conveys mystery and multiplicity. She is a living anthology of female archetypes: ingénue, femme fatale, girl gone wild, whatever the customer wants.
Ms. Browning was similarly fetishized in Zack Snyder’s grim, salacious “Sucker Punch.” But Ms. Leigh, an Australian novelist directing her first film, pays particular attention to the gap between Lucy’s status as an object of lust and the state of her own longing. It’s the difference between an idealized (or abject) vision of femininity and an ordinary young woman.
“My vagina is not a temple” she says to Clara, who had suggested otherwise, and there is nothing magical or sacred in the way Lucy approaches her sexuality. She allows herself to be picked up by strange men in bars, is generally passive and occasionally reckless, and reserves her expressions of affection and deep emotion for her tragic, sexless, literary friend, Birdmann (Ewen Leslie).
At a certain point Lucy wants to find out what happens while she is under the spell of Clara’s potion, and she buys a small video camera for the purpose. We already know, of course, but the gap between our perception and Lucy’s emphasizes the film’s deeper secret — or perhaps its most effective tease — which is what goes on in her mind.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Julia Leigh; director of photography, Geoffrey Simpson; edited by Nick Meyers; music by Ben Frost; production design by Annie Beauchamp; costumes by Shareen Beringer; produced by Jessica Brentnall; released by IFC Films. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Emily Browning (Lucy), Rachael Blake (Clara), Ewen Leslie (Birdmann), Peter Carroll (Man 1) and Chris Haywood (Man 2).