‘Sleeping Beauty,’ reviewed by Marshall Fine


Perhaps I’m not qualified to write about “Sleeping Beauty,” the debut film from Australian director Julia Leigh.

I am, after all, a middle-aged man. And this meandering movie, which manages to make nudity monotonous and presents sex as a distasteful commercial venture, seems to be about a kind of female empowerment – or perhaps disempowerment – with which I don’t seem to connect.

If you look on Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll find a critic referring to this as “a bold feminist think-piece” – which made me wonder: Hmmm, how bold and how thoughtful do you have to be to see the exploitation of women as a bad thing? Apparently referring to the film’s decidedly opaque quality, someone else says, “There’s an allegorical quality here.” That’s the mark of someone who b.s.’d their way through freshman English.

Still, I’ve always been of the opinion that a film should speak to the entire audience, rather than a single niche group. It may not say the same thing to all segments of the viewership but it still should communicate in some way.

But Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” wanders aimlessly into Stanley Kubrick territory – specifically, the land of “Eyes Wide Shut,” with a large dash of “Lolita.” Leigh creates a feckless female protagonist, Lucy (Emily Browning), and lets her amble through her own life with no apparent destination, frequently with her clothes off. Her life, as the saying goes, is one damn thing after another. Or one boring thing after another.

She works in an office, where her blasé attitude has her on the boss’ shit list. She apparently gets paid as a subject of medical experimentation – specifically to swallow a feeding tube in a gag-inducing pair of sequences. She regularly visits a friend who, apparently, is a drug addict, to enact some ritual of domesticity. The only thing she seems to really get involved in is a job as a waitress – and only at the end of the night, when she doggedly scrubs down tables with a concentration that seems to be as much about OCD as a dedication to doing a good job.

She’s behind in her rent, which makes her the object of anger from one of her roommates. So she takes a job as part of the world’s kinkiest catering crew.

Specifically, the strawberry-blonde, alabaster-skinned Browning dresses in revealing white underwear to pour wine at a dinner party. The other servers are larger, older, dark-haired women who are dressed in black underwear out of the back of a kinkier Victoria’s Secret catalog – the kind of corset-y things that make it look as though their bare breasts have been harnessed and which leave the women bottomless.

The guests, naturally, are dressed in formalwear and make no mention of the servants’ attire. At the end of the meal, the guests sit around talking and smoking cigars, while fondling the servers – or sitting on their laps.

Lucy is such a hit that the boss lady, Clara (Rachael Blake), offers her a chance to earn some real money. Essentially, Clara is pimping her out to the male clients, but with a difference:

Lucy will arrive, shower and then imbibe what appears to be a concoction spiked with a dollop of opium sufficient to render her unconscious. Then she’ll climb into bed naked and pass out. Clara then leads the male client in, tells them that penetration is not allowed but that, apparently, Lucy is otherwise theirs to do with as they please. The clients – all older rich men – are then left to their own devices with the comatose Lucy.
Good times.

There is little connective tissue to this story. Lucy simply moves from scene to scene, never commenting on what is or has happened to her. Indeed, she barely speaks; her face remains set in a bland expression that reflects her affect during the entire film.

The use of the fairy-tale title is misleading; there’s no resemblance between this story and the story of the princess who is cursed at birth to prick her finger on a spinning wheel. There is no Prince Charming here; indeed, charm has nothing to do with this film.

I thought Browning had an admirable deadpan quality in that awful “Lemony Snicket” movie and used that same flat affect to admirable effect in the underappreciated “Sucker Punch.” Now I’m not convinced that she simply lacks expressiveness.

Leigh achieves a certain level of creepiness, mostly in the scenes in which the unconscious Lucy is set upon by the sagging flesh of her aging clients. But it’s creepy in an “ick” sort of way, rather than an unsettling David Lynch manner.

I stayed for the whole film but only by a great act of will. Early on, I was ready to bolt and the question in my mind throughout was “Why am I watching this?” Aside from the fact that I could say that it’s my job, I still don’t have an answer.

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