Sleeping Beauty (18)

Dir: Julia Leigh
Cast: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie

When an author makes their directorial debut they could be forgiven for erring on the side of caution and taking on a safe project. Thankfully, “safe” has never been Leigh’s forte, and her courage pays dividends here. You could be forgiven for thinking that Sleeping Beauty refers to Charles Perrault’s famous story, and whilst there are several nods to the slumbering heroine, this film owes a lot more to Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘House of the Sleeping Beauties’ than the fairytale.

The film follows Lucy (Browning), a young university student who undertakes many demeaning jobs in order to make money. They range from medical testing, waitressing, office administration to sleeping with rich men for money. Answering an advert in the university newspaper leads her to a meeting with Clara (Blake), gaining her entry into the mysterious erotic world of aged rich men, and eventually into becoming a “sleeping beauty”.

Old men pay to sleep besides young girls (the “sleeping beauties”) that have been narcotised and are naked. As Clara spells out, penetration is not allowed. Leigh alludes to Kawabata’s book throughout the film and whilst the novella focuses on one of the old man, Sleeping Beauty is firmly centred on Lucy.

Much talk before the release was about the exploitation of Browning and the pornographic nature of the film. While Sleeping Beauty is very “European” for an Australian film, and no part of Browning is left unexposed, I found nothing reminiscent of cheap titillation or exploitation here. It is clear from the onset when Lucy swallows a tube as part of a medical experiment, and when she is told to use a lipstick that exactly matches the colour of her labia, that penetration here is as much oral as vaginal. Indeed, Lucy is cold and unemotional and sees no difference between sleeping with men or waitressing to make money. It’s all a form of prostitution. As she states, “my vagina is not a temple”.

The only exception is her relationship with a reclusive alcoholic friend Birdman (Leslie). As the only emotional relationship Lucy has throughout the film, their interaction stands in stark contrast to her closed, frigid demeanour. Her grief at his final moments is at odds with the blithe indifference she wears like armour. Only after he’s gone does she begin to question what she is doing.

Sleeping Beauty is a dark spell-binding fairytale. Whilst the film is slow-paced it never drags, and you will leave the cinema trying to clear your head, as if waking from a dream.

playing at The Showroom