Cannes Movie Review: Sleeping Beauty (2011)

Sleeping Beauty review
Rachael Blake, Emily Browning and Peter Caroll in Sleeping Beauty
Photo: eOne Films Entertainment

There was a lot of talk about Sleeping Beauty leading up to the Cannes Film Festival as the premise causes raised eyebrows. The story centers on Lucy (Emily Browning), a financially strapped college student who resorts to becoming a “Sleeping Beauty” to make ends meet. A “Sleeping Beauty” as it turns out — for those of us not partaking in the alternative sex scene — is a girl who is drugged by her highfalutin madame (Rachael Blake) so old men can take advantage of her. The one caveat, as we’re reminded endlessly throughout this mess, is that there is to be no penetration. Too bad, because that would have probably been more exciting and less uncomfortable than what ultimately takes place.

Sleeping Beauty is writer/director Julia Leigh’s debut feature film, which makes me wish I didn’t dislike it as much as I do. I scoured the press notes looking for a rhyme or reason to the story being told, because the film itself offers none. Leigh’s answer as to what she hopes the audience will leave the theater with is to say, “My hope is that the film allows the audience to use its imagination.”

I’ll take her up on that challenge. In fact, I was doing so before she even suggested it.

I tried to imagine why the first patron (Peter Caroll) to Lucy’s dream-state, non-penetration sex romp decides to tell a painfully boring soliloquy that had me blacking out before he was halfway done. I tried to imagine why her second patron (Chris Haywood) felt the urge to call her a bitch before burning her behind the ear with his cigarette, and why the third patron decided to pick her up like she was a rag doll before he appeared to have a mild heart attack. And that’s just the people that come to take advantage of her in the sack.

My imagination wandered further as I tried to figure out what was going on with the alcoholic gentleman Lucy poured a bowl of cereal for, using vodka instead of milk? How about the co-worker she goes with on a late night swim? What was the big deal with her mother needing her credit card number? How many times did I need to see her making copies? Why do I need to see her washing tables and stacking chairs so many times? And what kind of medical research program did she sign up for?

I ask these questions in all earnestness as this film seems to want to be about something but either doesn’t know what or how to achieve its metaphor. In the notes, Leigh says she is interested in “Wonder Cinema,” implying films that result in “a response of intense wonder rather than shock.” If she wanted me to wonder why it was made… mission accomplished.

I also have to wonder why Emily Browning decided this was the role for her. Replacing Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) in the part, the milky white Browning is nude for the majority of the film, leaving nothing to the imagination. As things progress to the point she’s carrying out her duties as a “Sleeping Beauty,” her geriatric suitors strip down to their birthday suits and join her in bed. One of them cuddles with her, another licks her face to the point of unseemly excess and the third, like I said already, flops her around like a rag doll.

I guess, in a way, I could give Browning credit for trying something different. For putting herself out there to the point I would be able to identify every inch of her body without seeing her face. That said, I wish her work hadn’t been all for naught. I wish I could say something was achieved in this film as it would likely receive endless derision if it were directed by a man, but seeing how Leigh is at the helm we look for more and find less.

Could it be about objectivity? Is it about poverty? Is it about job security? Is it about the subjugation of women? Is it about children with absentee parents? Loss of identity? Loss of respect? I can ask the questions and give you examples as to why I’m asking them, but there are no answers. Does a film deserve our praise if it has us asking questions? Or does it deserve praise only if we care while asking?

At one point Browning’s character says, “My vagina is not a temple.” At another, Ben Frost’s score begins to overwhelm the picture. Both had me thinking to myself, Okay, now we’re going somewhere. Unfortunately, “somewhere” never arrives and while the film is superbly shot by Geoffrey Simpson and inspires forced conversation, it ends up going nowhere and is one film I would never feel comfortable recommending.