Julia Leigh's directorial debut, Sleeping Beauty, caused quite a stir when it debuted earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. Its frank subject matter and stark portrayal of a sexually blase college student is certainly interesting, but not nearly as much as expected after the festival hype. Emily Browning (Sucker Punch) stars as Lucy, an emotionally distant college student who struggles financially with menial jobs. Whiling away as a copy girl and waitress, she spends her nights having random sexual encounters. Her nymphet allure drawing in both men and women.
Lucy answers an ad that leads her to Clara (Rachel Blake), a madam that caters to an ultra-secret world of the wealthy and their sexual fetishes. She graduates Lucy to a level of female companionship that is quite lucrative, but bizzare and dangerous. She drinks a tea that renders her completely unconscious for a night. During that night, whoever buys her service can do anything to her, except sexually penetrate her or mark her body in any way. Clara's initial remark is that "your vagina is a temple". Where Lucy casually responds, "believe me, my vagina is not a temple".
Lucy's sleeping John's are not the virile studs looking to ravish a girl. When you watch the film, there is both fascination and disgust at these scenes. Money can lead any fetishist to their satisfaction with Clara, so Lucy gains her admirers. But the toll of these lost nights seep into her days, tainting her few real relationships. It is therefore inevitable for Lucy to want to discover what happens while she sleeps.
Leigh's character study of Lucy is soulless and hollow. That much is obvious as she embarks on her wreckless sexual escapades. She's absolutely droll in every regard, except her physical beauty. I wanted to actually discover something more about this girl. Why? Is it only for money? If so, aren't their less dangerous situations where you can be an escort, have intercourse - which she has no problems with - and get paid. These questions are never answered. I find this to be very disappointing, especially when the primary character and her sexuality is the entire crux of the film.
Another trick that Julia Leigh uses to hammer in the starkness of the story is the lack of a soundtrack. It's a gimmick here. If you watch the Coen Brother's masterpiece, No Country for Old Men, you see how this is used in a more subtle and interesting way. In Sleeping Beauty, it is a trick used to make the audience focus more intently on the visual. This fades quickly if what you're seeing begins to get disjointed and uninteresting. I found myself bored for long stretches of the film. Emily Browning's Lucy is nubile and attractive. Seeing her in all manner of undress is not unappealing. We understand her fiscal issues, we understand why men - and women - want her. What we don't understand is anything about her or her motivations after watching Sleeping Beauty.
I give Julia Leigh and Emily Browning marks for effort here. This premise is good. It just had to have more exposition and writing to be better than a mediocre film. Leigh's just getting started, so maybe this is a diving board to better work. Only time will tell. Emily Browning puts her body into Sleeping Beauty. The script did not ask much of her speaking or emotional talents. So we will see how she fares in future projects to judge her acting skill. In summary, Sleeping Beauty is a different film to see, but not extraordinary at all.