Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Words by Hiba Akmal
Sleeping Beauty (2011)
Australian writer Julia Leigh’s directorial debut comes in the form of a rather beguiling, hyper-explicit innovation of the childhood fairy tale we know and love. Starring the ethereal Emily Browning, this Sleeping Beauty elects to send herself to sleep so that strange and ailing men may indulge their repressed yearnings with her lifeless form.
The literary influences of Julia Leigh’s arthouse erotica range from the 1961 Japanese Novella, The House of Sleeping Beauties by Yasunari Kawabata, Gabriel García Márquez’s lesser known Memories of My Melancholy Whores and, the ubiquitously known - Holy Bible, author disputed.
This eclectic profile hints at the strange brew of sensations at play in Leigh’s directorial debut. It is not hard to see why the ethereally beautiful Emily Browning is cast as the Sleeping Beauty. With vividly red pouted lips contrasted against porcelain fine-china skin and sharp feline eyes - her peculiar beauty can be skewed to channel any feminine archetype. Or all at once. The delicate ophelia, the enigmatic seductress, the hardened femme fatal or the soft and biblical virgin.
Sleeping Beauty entwines our human ideations of beauty, sex and desire with our darker drives for domination, self destruction and nihilistic surrender in a titillating and haunting exhibition.
But, back to it’s literary origins, recount your rosy childhood tale of the helpless heroine resuscitated by love’s first kiss. This ‘sleeping beauty’ elects to be sedated via a narcotic tea so that ailing and frail but affluent men may enact their deepest fantasies, relive their fondest intimacies or gratify their their most depraved compulsions, both tender and violent in nature with her lifeless form.
There is but one rule - no penile penetration. Followed by the caveat that - your vagina is a temple.
Browning’s performance must be applauded on multiple counts - not the least of which is her bravery and commitment in the service of art. Splaying herself nude and vulnerable for a performance of sexual vulgarity without the slightest of a flinch permitted - in an impeccably staged sedation - is a feat of discipline and talent.
Although the film trails behind her, rendering the viewer her constant shadow, Lucy’s inner-world remains a mystery. She goes about her life as if in a vacant slumber, engaging in destructive behaviour with a passivity that blends with the nihilisti tone of the film. Much of the reviews argue that Sleeping Beauty is ostentatiously ‘artsy’ but with little substance to back it up. In the scant interviews to be found across the net, Julia Leigh is similarly evasive - revealing very little to nothing definite about her peculiar protagonist.
With this, much is left to interpretation. Again, like many of the films Marchioness discusses, the plot is not the central feature. Rather the film bottles, imbibes and transmits a feeling so acute it is almost palpable, yet at the same time disconcertingly vague, as if concealed behind a heavy fog.
What compels Lucy to enter the world in which she operates? What are the motives and back stories of the multiple men who turn to the same clandestine service to soothe pointedly different sexual repressions. One violent, vulgar and dominating. One tragically re-enacting the lost virility of his youth - tossing the limp beauty from his struggling grasp. And one, bereaved and tormented (no less twisted) - who we see twice.
His first sessions, he precedes with an forlorn, slightly rambling soliloquy the details of which are lost on me but the gist of which dwells on youth, loss and regret. From this we glean he uses the sleeping beauty to touch, once again, some irretrievable love and momentarily silence the pain of its loss. The second session he uses as a quiet portal to death, taking a fatal concentration of that same narcotic tea, entwining sex, mortality and greif into one emotive but incomprehensible act of suicide.
One thing Leigh does reveal, in addition to the film’s literary origins - is her motivation to reverse the perspective of their plots. Kawabata and Márquez’s novellas relay the story of the old man who searches for a spiritual salve in the pleasures of the flesh. Through Leigh however, we shadow the young girl whose body provides that physical reprieve.
Frustratingly this does not give us much more insight into why she offers herself so, or what she is in search of. Like many, Lucy is a struggling college student, funding herself through un-ideal and oft unpleasant means. Yet what compels her (aside from financial need) to repeatedly volunteer her body for violation is not really the concern of the film. Perhaps this omission is an artistic choice to embody the curious interplay of immediate and often physical gratification with spiritual void or desolation. The sleeping beauty is just the sacrificial vessel.