Sleeping Beauty

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<i>Sleeping Beauty</i>

Sucker Punch’s Baby Doll fulfills a male fantasy of an entirely different sort in writer-director Julia Leigh’s debut Sleeping Beauty. Auburn-haired, alabaster-skinned, apple-cheeked Emily Browning stars as Lucy, a Sydney university student struggling to make ends meet. She participates in medical experiments. She buses tables. She makes copies in a generic office building. Then one day she answers an ad in the campus newspaper, and she’s introduced to a high-class underground culture centered on sensual dining and sleeping experiences.

Although youthful and innocent-looking, Lucy is hardly a victim, already trolling swanky bars for anonymous sex, letting a coin flip decide who she’ll go home with at the end of the night. “My vagina is not a temple,” she snaps. And she doesn’t seem well-liked. She pisses off her boss, she’s estranged from her mother, and she argues with her roommates about the rent. Her one friend is Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a shut-in with an unidentified illness (could be psychological, could be addiction) with whom she plays domestic like little kids play doctor. Browning compellingly captures the dichotomy of the part, belying her ingénue appearance with a shrug when offered drugs or sex: “Why not?”

All of this is presented without much exposition. We watch what Lucy does, with little explanation. It’s never clarified, for example, what device is being shoved down her throat in a sterile lab in the film’s opening scene, nor to what end. Likewise, when she first meets with her mistress Clara (Rachael Blake), the rules of the job are described—“There are heavy penalties for breaches of discretion” and “Your vagina will not be penetrated”—but the job itself remains a mystery. When Lucy takes a phone call from her employers, we hear only her end of the conversation. This air of ambiguity lends a sense of discovery to the viewing experience.

Lucy’s first gig for Clara is as a lingerie waitress: She pours wine at a high-end dinner party dressed in white intimates. Later, she’s promoted: After sipping ritual tea with Clara, a businesswoman who seems to genuinely care for her girls, Lucy falls into a deep slumber, á la the titular fairy tale princess, and Clara’s gentlemen clients pay to spend the night with her.

Clara’s number-one rule is “No penetration,” although later she’s compelled to add, “Try not to leave any marks,” but there’s still an assaultive aspect to watching these grown men put their hands (and more) all over Lucy’s limp, yielding nude body. The camera sits still, unblinking during these scenes, letting the beginnings of the sessions unfold in voyeuristic real time. What happens after the camera shuts off remains nebulous, and Lucy, like us, wants to know. A heretofore invulnerable young woman, she views knowing what goes on when she’s most vulnerable as taking back control.

Leigh, whose script landed on the notorious Hollywood Black List of best unproduced scripts in 2008, strikes an observational, artful tone that builds to an emotional climax as fittingly yet frustratingly enigmatic as anything that’s come before.

Director: Julia Leigh
Writer: Julia Leigh
Starring: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie
Release Date: Dec. 2, 2011