Directed by Julia Leigh
As with the Sleeping Beauty of mythic lore, the next best thing to killing someone as a testament to their beauty is to put them to sleep.
"You are very beautiful, very talented. We are going to make you more beautiful, more talented." So says Clara, played by Rachel Blake, the madam of the brothel for the wealthy octogenarians in Julia Leigh's film Sleeping Beauty. The words are spoken to Lucy, played by Emily Browning, who has perfect doll features and body, big, glassy eyes and protruding, pouty lips.
Creepier words have not been spoken on the screen since the treatment of pre-adolescent schoolgirls in Lucile Hadzihalilovic's 2004 film Innocence. Indeed, the entire effect of Sleeping Beauty is creepy, since it mirrors exactly how our society treats beauty, especially in the case of young women. "There is room for promotion," the madam goes on to say. Promotion to what? Sleeping and being humiliated and degraded by men old enough to be her grandfather?
What makes this film intriguing is that Leigh's creepy tone is seamless. This not only demonstrates the incredible control of the Australian director, but it resonates within the film's detached dream-turned-nightmare world, where, with every turn and nuance, one asks: Seriously? Is this really happening? The nightmare includes everything from women being asked to match their lipstick colours to their labia, to a poor girl burning large sums of money for kicks.
To carry the detachment idea further, the entire world of this film responds to beauty through a series of strange juxtapositions. These include one-night stands, the pickups, and the things people say in conversation that only make sense when you're stoned--but you're not stoned; the world is stoned. Then, all this is juxtaposed against the mediocrities of life: losing an apartment, bussing tables, running copies in an office, being the recipient of a series of experimental endoscopies. The meaning is not lost on the audience: One way or another, this woman constantly has long tubes shoved down her throat.
The effect is hypnotic and yet, in some strange way, it captures the nuance of a girl in her early 20s navigating the strangeness of a world that responds with outraged confusion in the face of her youthful sexuality, responding to that beauty with the awe and rage, the confusion and powerlessness of a child denied a toy. Lucy is smart. She's going to use that sexuality to make a lot of money being drugged so that clients can exploit her while she sleeps.
I was riveted until the climax, when I thought: What, over already? The end left me less than satisfied, but that's the point. Julia Leigh, the brilliant author of The Hunter, a novel (recently adapted for screen) that hypnotizes through the tone of language and pacing, knows how to end a story. I believe here she knowingly resists the principles of traditional structure. Is this a dream or real?
Answer: Sometimes, with certain life experiences, dream and reality do blur, and it is that tenuous line that ultimately makes them so powerful. The ending of Sleeping Beauty is one of those experiences. Leigh captures it with a shuddering discomfort.