Saturday, September 17, 2011

Sleeping Beauty (2011)


The 31st Atlantic Film Festival

Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty has been described as an erotic drama, or even as erotica. I think that description might be misleading. I suppose that any time that you have a film with lots of nudity and implied sex, you feel obligated to warn the audience, in some fashion, about the subject matter, but "erotica" seems to imply that that subject matter will be, well, erotic. The sex (all off-screen, actually) and nudity in this film is usually just kind of sad and depressing.

Lucy (an astonishingly beautiful Emily Browning) is a student who needs money. Or possibly just wants it. She works two jobs--one as an office assistant, one as a waitress (or bus boy)--and she also engages in medical experiments, which I assume she's being paid for. The medical experiment involves a long tube being inserted into her throat, and down into her chest; the doctor (or scientist) then seems to measure how much air pressure he can put into her. It's, obviously, quite weird. Lucy lives at a friend's house, and her friend's boyfriend (friend? husband? lover?) keeps pestering her for the rent. Lucy then answers an ad in the student newspaper, and finds a job doing a "silver service"; dressed up in her undergarments, she joins a group of semi-nude women as they serve rich old people decadent food.

And then it gets weirder. Lucy soon finds herself offering a rather depressing service: she allows herself to be drugged, so that old rich men may do to her whatever they want--except, for some reason, penetrate her. That, apparently, is out of the question. "Your vagina is a temple," the madam, Clara, tells Lucy. "No, it's not," replies Lucy. Certainly she doesn't feel that way; off the job, she picks up men for sex at a club.

Lucy also has a friend named Birdmann, whom she visits on occasion, usually to supply with vodka. Birdmann seems to be drinking himself to death. This makes Lucy sad, but not so sad as to really do anything about it. They have a very close, very intimate relationship, but it's never revealed if they are, or ever were, lovers.

It's hard to know what to make of Sleeping Beauty. It's disturbing, yes; the fact that these old men want to do whatever they feel like to a young, sleeping woman, is obviously unsettling, and somehow the fact that they don't allow full penetration makes it even more so. This opportunity that the men have--to be with a woman, unobserved, even by the woman--creates even more intimate, and obviously more unequal (and ultimately more pathetic) situation. But the tone seems quite uneven. The stilted dialogue of the old man--there is one who gets an extended monologue--seems almost satiric, or, if not satiric, then just actually bad.

But I think that the film does a lot of things right. It never tries to explain Lucy; we don't really know anything about her. I see her actions, but I don't get to know what motivates these actions. I don't know, for instance, why she needs money--she mentions an alcoholic mother, and she does speak to her, once, on the phone, but you only get Lucy's side of the conversation, and, in any event, you never see her sending money anyway (though she does give her mother her credit card number). Is this an important detail, or a red herring? There's no illumination into her relationship with Birdmann, either; how do they know each other? What is there history? And why does her roommate's boyfriend want her out so badly? Like I said, I think that this is the right decision; it would be difficult to explain Lucy's story, her motivations, and even if you did, you'd risk shifting the focus of the movie away from the situation she's in, and instead making it into a sort of melodrama. In any event, knowing and understanding Lucy wouldn't really get us any further in understanding the weird world she enters. It's less important to know why Lucy is doing what she's doing, than to speculate as to why her johns are doing what they're doing--and their motivation is something that you need to consider for yourself.

And I think that this is tied, in a way, to the fact that a movie about sex never actually shows any sex; sure, it shows some graphic scenes of a sexual nature, but any real sex happens off screen. What does happen on-screen would actually be fairly tame (by art house film standards), but the context tends to make it uncomfortable.

The film is beautifully shot, and I couldn't help but notice how few cuts there were in each scene. This is something that, over time, I've really come to appreciate. If the actors are performing one action, it's usually depicted in one shot. Conversations, which aren't overly verbose, but still involve some back-and-forth dialogue, are also shot without cuts. It slows the pace of the film down, a bit, but it gives you a better appreciation of the actual performances, and comes off as much more natural.


Emily said...

Haven't heard of this, but it sounds really intriguing.

J.T. said...

I am not sure if I can handle a film with a naked Emily Browning in it where the nakedness is sad and depressing.

Anonymous said...

hi, nice review.
i like it that you wrote we dont know anything about her.
cause this movie is so confusing and make you wonder. and people speculating this and that which not even in the movie.
nice movie anyway. but might be disturbing for some ppl.

Beez said...

She doesn't give her mother the credit card number. She makes it up.