Going by the reactions of the people around me at the preview screening, this film is going to polarise its audiences. Well, I say that as the sole defender of the movie in my vicinity. “What a mess!” one vocally prominent woman bawled as she sailed out on to the street, her own wind gusting in her sails. “So pretentious!” exclaimed another.
I’m usually tersely dismissive of pretentious cinema. One whiff of arty indulgence and my hackles raise. And yes, I can see why the sorts of accusations I overheard on the preview night might be levelled at Sleeping Beauty. It’s a lyrical piece that dares to take itself seriously without the usual safety net of irony – very ‘arthouse’, if you like. Aussies have a low tolerance for this mode of cinema when it issues from within. If it’s French, or German, or Spanish… well, somehow we’re a lot more comfortable with the exotic when it’s actually exotic. Homegrown stuff has to be self-effacing, or tough, or quirky and seasoned with plenty of wry humour, right mate?
Thing is, it takes guts to put it all on the line, as writer/director Julia Leigh and her actors have here. She’s made the film she wanted to make for better or worse, and it’s not like any other film to come out of this country. Big risk to break the mould like that.
I have to confess to admiring the filmmakers for their artistic courage in refusing to compromise their vision in this instance. That in itself should not inform one’s assessment of the film, but it may have impacted on my response to some extent. Just so you know.
Is it ‘a mess?’ I don’t think so. It departs from narrative convention in that it doesn’t attempt to explain itself to the viewer. If you get too hung up on things like character motivation or ‘story’ you may end up frustrated. Accept it on its own terms and don’t worry too much about ‘understanding’ it – much as you might read a work of poetry – and you may find, as I did, that it’s an intriguing, disturbing and often beautiful film that lingers long after the credits roll, quietly rewarding rumination if you stay open to the process.
All pretty vague and befuddling, I know. The thing is, this is not the sort of movie to which the usual reviewing conventions can be usefully applied. I can give you a brief synopsis, sure, but it won’t tell you much about the film. Still, gotta start somewhere…
Lead character Lucy (Emily Browning) is a pale, waif-like, highly intelligent and articulate young woman given to risk-taking and potentially self-destructive behaviour. For example, she allows the toss of a coin to determine which of a pair of sleazy strangers in a bar she has sex with, and when. The coin points to the less physically appealing specimen with a paunch and says “now”, so off they go. There is no portrayal of sex against a wall or in a toilet or whatever – we are left to imagine the details. Indeed, this sets the tone for the entire movie, which features a lot of nudity but no sex per se.
Lucy is similarly random and casual in her drug-taking, but lest I give the wrong impression I hasten to add that hers is not the passé rocknroll lifestyle we see so much of in grungey Aussie films. She’s no fast-laner, either. In fact, she has a drifting, enervative quality about her, and her risk-taking behaviour is curiously passive. While not actively seeking self-destruction, she’s evidently not too concerned about her safety. You sense she’d play Russian roulette without a quickening pulse rate, but only if she came upon the opportunity randomly and someone happened to hand her the gun.
When she runs out of funds and is unable to pay her share of the rent, she seeks a high remuneration position which turns out to be with a bizarre escort agency catering for wealthy elderly men. She doesn’t get to see her clients, who are led to a boudoir in which she lies naked in a drugged sleep. They spend the night with her on condition that there is no penetrative sex.
All very weird, but the most fascinating element here is the sly positioning of the audience as voyeur. Some might feel revulsion for the elderly clients as they ogle the sleeping Lucy, touch her, and indulge in all sorts of intimacies (and in some cases, abuses) as she lies there unaware and utterly vulnerable, but we are forced to temper our judgment since we, too, are participants in this outrageous invasion of her privacy. And, if honesty is to prevail over political correctness, it must be acknowledged that there is sensual delight in savouring the beauty of this young woman’s nakedness. Not titillation, though. Some critics have dismissed the film as soft-core porn, but in my view there is no wilful intention on the part of the filmmakers to arouse. It is sensuality, not sex, that is at the core of this movie. And death. And the pain, longing, loneliness and mystery that lies between.
Not everything works. Lucy’s relationship with an alcoholic friend with whom she shares breakfasts of cereal and vodka (yes, silly) is only a sketch, and not a very satisfying one. Ditto her job as some sort of tester in a lab, which requires her to swallow an endoscopic tube. And if you start to fixate on internal logic, there are ‘issues’ (eg: why does she keep her waitress job when she is raking in the bucks as an escort?).
But for me, these flaws are incidental to the intrigue of the larger picture – and especially to Emily Browning’s rivetting work as Lucy. Her alabaster skin and mesmerising physical presence, her sheer courage in surrending herself to this role and the vulnerability it demands, and the fine intelligence she brings to her character add up to an unforgettable and haunting performance.
Stay clear if you’re not prepared to go with something gutsy and challenging that explores dark and dangerous territory not commonly approached by Aussie filmmakers. Otherwise, try this one on. Perfect and easily resolved it ain’t, but I found it gripping from start to finish…and the ride doesn’t finish there unless you cut it short with damning declarations. Why would you want to do that?
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