A young man in a lab coat sits at a table, alone in a large room. Only his hands move, precise, deliberate movements as he affixes a rubber balloon to a long plastic tube. After a while a young woman enters the room and comes sit next to him. They exchange pleasantries as she signs a waiver form and receives an envelope we understand contains cash. “Open your mouth,” the man then says, and he shoves the tube down her throat. Deeper and deeper it goes, and as she starts gagging on it, the only reassurance the man can offer is that she’s “doing great.” “Now,” he says as she sits next to him with her head tilted back, in a posture of total vulnerability, “I’m going to blow air into the balloon, so the pressure on your chest is going to rise a little.”
The opening scene of Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty is remarkable in that it contains the whole movie within it, both stylistically and thematically speaking. The film’s cold, distant tone (reinforced by the almost complete lack of a score) is already on display and already commented upon, or at least highlighted by the similar cold distance for which the medical experiment calls; the extreme attention paid to composition and framing throughout the movie likewise finds an echo in the man’s meticulousness (given what Sleeping Beauty ends up being about, it is quite fascinating to consider that this man, who otherwise plays an insignificant role, is perhaps the closest we get to an avatar of Leigh here). While the incredible semi-repressed violence of the scene is never quite reproduced, at least not to that degree, the woman’s passive and silent position, and her existence as nothing but a body (here to be experimented on), brilliantly prefigure the film’s thematic concerns. The scene serves as a sort of disclaimer: this, it says, is an extremely cerebral film about bodies. You’ve been warned.
Lucy (Emily Browning) is one of those too numerous students who seem to spend more time working to pay for school rather than studying. She waits tables and gets paid to participate in unpleasant medical experiments. There are strong hints, though it is never explicitly stated, that she prostitutes herself in high-class bars and clubs. She lives in a small house with a couple: the man is needlessly antagonistic, the woman seems nice enough but doesn’t dare contradict her boyfriend. Her only friend is neurotic Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), who lives like a recluse in his cramped studio apartment and is always wearing the same old jacket.
One day Lucy answers an ad she found in the student paper, and soon she finds herself serving wine at fancy dinner parties while wearing next to nothing, along with other girls who often wear even less. The money’s good, so she doesn’t care. When her boss, the dignified and elegant Clara (Rachael Blake), offers her an even more unusual job for even more money, she says yes. All she has to do is take a powerful drug that will put her in a deep sleep and lie naked while older men do whatever they want with her body. Or almost whatever they want. The one rule, Clara says, is that Lucy will never be penetrated.
Taken literally, Sleeping Beauty is the story of a bored young woman adrift in a meaningless world, told as a beautifully shot fairy tale turned oppressive nightmare. Beyond the title, the film is choke-full of fairy tale imagery, such as that moment when Lucy, en route to an unknown place for an unknown purpose, grabs a handful of cranberries and slowly lets them trickle out of her hand, like a modern-day Hansel. (This gesture, however, is a symbolic one, doomed to failure, as Lucy is inside a car; unlike Hansel and Gretel’s pebbles, Lucy’s cranberries can never lead her back home.) The slow pace and lack of a soundtrack can be off-putting, but that’s exactly the point. This isn’t a film that aims to grab you on an emotional level; rather, its goal is to force you to confront its disturbing nature (in terms of form, tone, and thematic content) and engage with it intellectually. Sleeping Beauty is indeed in many ways an intellectual exercise and its story an extended metaphor, which doesn’t mean it is dry, boring, or unejoyable as a piece of art—quite the contrary. If you accept it for what it is and engage with it, this is an extremely rewarding film.
Beyond its obvious formal qualities and its bare-bones approach to storytelling, Sleeping Beauty is, perhaps first and foremost, a reflection on the objectification of women in culture and particularly in movies, at a time when gender inequality is still the rule in Hollywood. As such, the casting of Emily Browning is either pure brilliance or an extraordinary happy accident (given that Mia Wasikowska was originally supposed to play Lucy, the latter seems more likely). Browning, you’ll remember, starred in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, this year’s quintessential teenage male masturbatory fantasy. (I’m aware that Snyder has argued that Sucker Punch was intended as a critique of that very sort of film. However, what he ended up with, which is the only thing we can judge, is a narrative and thematic mess, and in the end is just as exploitative and objectifying as any of Michael Bay’s features.) Here she appears as, well, the quintessential male masturbatory fantasy (that it is older men rather than teenagers that now lust after her has little incidence). I mean that in the strictest possible sense; after all, as Clara constantly reminds her clients, and as I have already mentioned, the only rule when they spend the night with Lucy is that there can be no penetration, making her, again, a quite literal masturbatory fantasy.
Lucy, furthermore, seems to have no real core, no actual personality to speak of. She morphs in order to accommodate the fantasies of men around her, whether her clients or not. From student she becomes waitress, then high-class prostitute, changing outfits, make-up and hairdos to such an extent that she seems a different person every time. She serves at fancy upper-class dinners wearing nothing but a garter belt and a bra that barely covers her breasts. She spends a lot of time naked (including in a sequence where she wakes up after sleeping with a co-worker, which I can’t help but read as a scathing commentary on Hollywood’s hypocritical faux-puritanism when it comes to sex scenes). Even her name isn’t fixed; she’s Lucy, and Melissa when she calls to answer the ad, and Sara for the agency and their clients. Her identity is constantly shifting because she exists not as a real person, but as a projection of sexual fantasies. “I would love to suck your cock,” she tells a man she just met in a club as he’s awkwardly trying to pick her up; she’s not a woman, she’s a blow-up doll (but one that actually wants to have sex with you).
The subtext comes dangerously close to becoming text once Lucy accepts to spend the night naked, drugged and sleeping with men she doesn’t know. The men all treat her differently; some are even gentle with her. None of them, though, interact with her. They have no interest whatsoever in her as a person, only as a way to fulfil their fantasies. She’s no more the “dirty whore” one of them wants her to be than the gentle and fragile princess another treats her like (based on what we see of her, she’s actually a rather irritable and aggressive person). The madonna or the whore, two equally unrealistic fantasies, is all she can be to those men—and, as it turns out, even to her friend Birdmann, who early on confesses to having once wanted to kiss her but refrained from doing so (regardless of the reason he gives, this says much about how he perceives her), and later reveals he also sees her as an incarnation of his sexual desires. The madonna or the whore, the damsel in distress of the seductive slut: two archetypes that are still too often prevalent in culture at large and Hollywood movies in particular. (Do I need to mention Twilight? Didn’t think so.)
Which brings me back to the film’s opening scene, in which a silent Lucy is entirely at the mercy of a man who cares not for her as a person, but only as a body (and of course the sequence, as unpleasant and unerotic as it is, is full of sexual subtext). But what we’re watching here is also Browning the actress being subjected to an unpleasant experience, both physically (if we assume she really did have a tube shoved down her throat which, judging by her physical reaction, seems to be the case) and symbolically, by a director and, to a larger extent, by an entire industry (the movie industry stands behind the director just like the pharmaceutical industry stands behind the young doctor performing his experiment on Lucy). Sleeping Beauty is one of those films whose every frame deserves to be similarly closely looked at and analyzed. Not only because it looks so good, thought that alone would be reason to do it, but also because there is so much going on at all times.