Rarely has just the noise of a door opening caused knots in the stomach quite like it does in Sleeping Beauty. Director Julia Leigh knows this, too. She keeps, as she often does in the film, the rest of the scene exceptionally quiet. She doesn’t even show the door itself. But just one noise, in an expanse of silence, has real impact.
Leigh approaches much of Sleeping Beauty in the same way. It’s hard to think of a recent feature where music has been so sparse, for instance. She also keeps her camera as still as possible, and holds shots as long as she requires, rather than taking an opportunity to duck out of a scene even a second too earlier. It’s a staggeringly confident piece of direction, with Leigh utterly in control of her material.
Just what that material actually is, however, is perhaps the real question here.
At heart, this is a take on the more traditional Sleeping Beauty story, sometimes subtle, sometimes less so. Leigh’s film centres on university student Lucy, played by Emily Browning. Lucy’s got a couple of pretty uninteresting jobs, in pretty uninteresting places. It’s also established, early on, that she will sleep with a man based on the consequences of a toss of a coin. It’s also clear that money holds little attraction for her, which raises one or two questions for further on in the film.
Her emotions firmly in check, her pale complexion reflects the manner in which she ghosts through the world. Yet it also shields some necessary emotions. We’ll come to those shortly.
For, one day, she answers an advert in her student newspaper, which brings her to the world of Rachael Blake’s Clara. Clara runs a very discrete service for older men, who wish to fulfil their desires to spend time with a ‘sleeping beauty’. Thus, Lucy is consensually drugged, and left naked in a bed, free for clients to do with what they will, as long as they don’t break the no-penetration rule.
We’re asked to believe, then, that Lucy ultimately wants to find out more about just what happens when she’s out, but this in itself is a little bit of a muddle. Because, as a character, she’s so emotionally guarded, it’s hard to understand one or two of the decisions she makes.
Why she wants to find out more never really came across for me, especially as she’s making conscious choices throughout, without, presumably, the financial motivation that we suspect she’s got into all of this in the first place for. To be clear: while it’s understandable that Lucy may want to discover more about the world she’s found herself in, there’s nothing particularly on the screen to convince you that may be the case.
It’s an intriguing film, and certainly one that sticks around, not always for the most pleasant of reasons. Described in some quarters as an erotic thriller, Sleeping Beauty is anything but. This is a distinctly uncomfortable film to watch in places, as Julia Leigh shows utmost confidence in her willingness to strip things back to the bare bones. At times, it’s almost as if she’s playing a game of blink with the audience, and you can’t help but surrender before she does. That makes her film one open to interpretation and questions, but I’m not utterly convinced there’s enough to it to warrant that.
Because if there’s a problem here, it’s that it’s not utterly clear what the point is. The character of Lucy undergoes a haunting journey throughout the film, but it seemed more haunting for us, the viewers, then for her character. That’s not to say her character is content: far from it, as you might expect. But the ending doesn’t seem to match the sureness of the rest of the film. It’s very much in the same style, it just doesn’t quite seem to fit.
Still, even in the moments of Sleeping Beauty where it threatens to veer a little too off piste, there’s a pair of performances that are both fearless and exceptional.
Rachael Blake’s is the one, you suspect, that will garner few plaudits, and perhaps that’s fair. But it’s her character Clara, her set of rules, and the veneer of reasonableness in the midst of scenes that are anything but, that effectively grounds the film.
What then lifts it is Emily Browning, with a staggeringly brave, controlled performance. Rarely clothed for long, and undergoing some incredibly uncomfortable moments, we find ourselves flinching on her behalf, as Browning submits fully to the role of Lucy. Particularly in the moments she spends in the company of unnamed, naked male clients, none of whom reflect her beauty in any way.Sleeping Beauty is an interesting film, certainly, shot with a belief that marks Julia Leigh out as a director to watch. What she isn’t as strong on, on this evidence, is matching a narrative to her undeniably strong vision. And while Sleeping Beauty encourages dissection, there’s a sneaking suspicion that there’s not enough at the core of it to warrant it.