Despite its title and the innocent allure of star Emily Browning plastered over the film’s promotional images, there is nothing remotely fairy-tale adjacent in this Sleeping Beauty. Novelist turned filmmaker Julia Leigh makes her directorial debut with this feature and the outcome is indeed one of the darkest, more unsettling outings of 2011.
Browning is Lucy, a young university student struggling to get by and holding down three jobs in the process. She waitresses, where she flirts and pops pills with her handsome co-worker (Michael Dorman), performs a series of admin duties (barely) in a suburban office, and functions as a test subject at a laboratory. It becomes clear early on that although Lucy may look like a sweet and innocent young girl, almost childlike in her features, she is far from it. She seems to have little regard for her own well being as demonstrated in an early scene where she takes drugs in a nightclub with a stranger and then goes home with a mature businessman, and it’s this reckless trait that leads her to Clara (Rachael Blake).
Clara is a madam operating a unique form of prostitution out of her country estate. Initially Lucy, renamed Sara for her new line of work, is paraded about in lingerie serving drinks at a dinner party for a group of elderly gentlemen, whilst the other girls wear S&M attire and are asked to do slightly more degrading acts. Clearly not phased by the humiliation, and guided by the healthy pay packet she’s receiving, Lucy moves on to the next level of Clara’s employment.
Assured that no penetration will take place, Lucy agrees to be drugged and put to sleep for the course of the night and while unconscious a series of elderly men, one of whom took an interest in her at the dinner party, spend the night with her. These scenes are probably the hardest to watch, and there are no simulated sex acts, but the loneliness, desperation and perverse nature that the men display makes for extremely uncomfortable viewing.
There is no definition in the film in regards to structure; instead of a beginning, a middle and an end it feels as if we are merely witnessing a chapter in the sad life of Lucy, a self-destructive girl who clearly has confidence issues yet masks them expertly with her alluring sexuality. Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, has made a startlingly ambitious first feature, and she should be commended on it, but I can’t help but think it would seem so much more interesting in novel form than what has transpired on-screen.
There’s an interesting premise here no doubt, and it was never going to be a film that would be easy to watch given the subject matter, but Leigh has gone for such a realistic, almost documentary, approach to the scenes, filming mostly in one take and from one angle, that it seems much harder to digest.
It’s not a film one can enjoy, and I wouldn’t tell people to rush out and see it, but we have to support Australian films and the industry, and the film became more interesting and complex when discussing it afterwards. No matter how you personally react to the film though, the one undeniable truth is that Browning is a bonafide star, and delivers one of the bravest performances of the year.
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