Julia Leigh is a first time filmmaker, but you’d never know it from the confidence that is on display in each and every frame of her film “Sleeping Beauty.”
There are few tricks more difficult in filmmaking than tackling the subject of sexuality on film in a frank and adult way without making something that is, for lack of a better term, pornographic, and yet it seems like one of the things that serious filmmakers attempt every so often, and that has baffled even some of our very best. For someone to make their debut with a movie that digs into onscreen eroticism and that attempts to do so in an intriguing, almost clinical manner is genuinely daring, and it is impressive how close Leigh comes to pulling it off.
Even tougher is making a film with a passive protagonist, but that’s the entire point of this film. Lucy (Emily Browning) moves through life as if she’s watching it on TV, disconnected from almost everything she does in her daily life. She works a handful of jobs while going to college, and as we watch her deal with the details of her day — washing tables, submitting to a repeated experiment for cash, copying and collating papers — she is barely there. Even when she goes out to bars looking for empty sexual encounters, she lets things happen. She leaves her fate up to a coin toss. The only person she seems to have any real connection to is a young man named Birdmann (Ewen Leslie) who is in the final stages of some unnamed fatal illness, and it’s obvious it takes a huge emotional toll on her each time she sees him.
She stumbles into a new job that skirts the line of being prostitution, involving her dressing up in revealing lingerie to serve drinks at private parties, and Leigh begins to tease the audience even as she tests Lucy. Where is her personal line? What is too much for her to consider? Where will she stop once she starts down this path? Her employer, Clara (Rachael Blake), offers her a new job, and this is where the movie takes a left turn into a genuinely unexplored area on film, the ultimate version of a passive sexual encounter. Lucy agrees to let herself be drugged so that she slips into a deep sleep, so deep that even striking her won’t rouse her, with the only rule being that the men who pay for her company in that condition are not allowed to penetrate her. Short of that, anything goes.
So what happens in that room? Who pays for that sort of thing, and why? And what does it mean for Lucy when she does wake up with no memory other than the signals her own body sends to her? The success or failure of the movie as a thematic piece ultimately rests on the answers to these questions, and while I admire everything about the film technically and even in terms of performance, I think Leigh leaves the viewer on the outside of the equation, watching instead of becoming involved, and it is a mistake that means the film never quite adds up.
Having said that, I was never bored by the movie, and the filmmaking is exquisite. Working with cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, Leigh crafts tableaus for her scenes, her formal composition style bringing Peter Greenaway to mind. There is an odd combination of the lush and the clinical in the film’s design, and it is certainly provocative. Emily Browning, whose work in “Sucker Punch” was so very particular, proves here that she is dedicated to disappearing into these films. Her Lucy is a damaged creation, and she manages to bring a surprising degree of nuance to “blank” over the course of the film. Even in her sleeping scenes, she is a participant, interesting to observe. There’s nothing coy about the film’s approach to nudity, but there’s also nothing about it that suggests exploitation. There is a great deal of nudity from Lucy and from some other characters, but it’s almost matter-of-fact. They aren’t naked to provoke a response from you, the viewer. Instead, these are simply scenes where the characters would be nude, and so that’s how Leigh shoots them. The film is more concerned with the head than with any real estate south of there, and it avoids feeling like a Skinemax flick you’d see at 2:00 AM by virtue of this sort of austere approach to these difficult moments.
While I can’t say I loved “Sleeping Beauty,” it is a film that will stick with me, and I suspect this is the beginning of a long and interesting career for Leigh as a writer/director. I hope that as she moves forward as a filmmaker, she continues to take risks and try difficult material, but that she also learns to leave just a little bit more room for the viewer in what she does. As it is, this is a museum piece, mounted on a wall behind glass, able to be seen but never felt, a cold film about heated things, fascinating but flawed.
That brings my first day of movies to a close. I actually saw three films today. You saw my review of “Midnight In Paris” earlier, but I can’t publish anything about “Kung-Fu Panda 2: The Kaboom Of Doom” until closer to release. I’ll just say this.. it was a solid day all around, and even with “Sleeping Beauty,” I’m really glad this is the way the festival began for me. I’m still grappling with how much time to spend in line for each film and I’m still stressing about what I will or won’t get to see, but if the rest of the festival goes as well as today did, Cannes 2011 is going to be one of the most exciting and eclectic festival experiences I’ve ever had.
And I would expect nothing less.