Sleeping Beauty (review)

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Emily Browning and Rachael Blake in Sleeping Beauty

Living Dead Girl

Anyone who pays any attention to film will certainly have noticed that women, when they appear onscreen at all, are almost always depicted as objects. Cinematic women are victims to prompt male vengeance, or prizes for men to aspire to. Women onscreen drive the actions of men; female characters onscreen motivate and support the personal journeys of male characters onscreen. Women are rarely allowed personal journeys of their own. Women are rarely allowed to be fully human.
This may be, in part, because movies are overwhelmingly written and directed by men. The arrival of a new woman filmmaker — particularly in the one-two punch of writer and director — must be recognized as an opportunity to get more female perspectives and female stories up on the screen. Hoorah!


And yet I despair at Sleeping Beauty, the feature debut of screenwriter and director Julia Leigh. I don’t expect that all women must carry a blazing torch of feminist righteousness all the time. Not even women in such a male-dominated world as film. But how does any woman make a film like this one, which celebrates mute female submission as something beautiful and desirable, something so understandably, so reasonably attractive to men? How does any woman who loves movies so much that she actually makes one herself fail to see that she has created an ode to the very things that make cinema anathema to the simple, basic idea of female personhood? How does any woman filmmaker not kick that idea in the nuts?

A movie like Sleeping Beauty would be infuriating if it came from a male filmmaker. From a woman, it feels like betrayal.

Here we have Lucy (Emily Browning: Sucker Punch, The Uninvited), a university student who has taken on an array of shitty menial jobs to support herself. She cleans tables in a dingy cafe; she xeroxes in an ugly fluorescent-lit office. As the film opens, we see her participating in some sort of medical experiment that involves having a tube snaked down into her stomach. Her delicate, ladylike gagging at having her throat invaded is surely meant to invoke the more demeaning things she could be doing for ready money. At least here she’s in a brightly lit laboratory and it’s only a sweet, gentle guy in a lab coat who keeps his distance.

So it’s hardly a thing at all, then, when Lucy gets a new job with elegant Clara (Rachael Blake: Derailed), who runs a service that delivers appropriately lovely women — for very narrow values of “lovely” — to very wealthy old men who have more money than dignity. Oh, not for sex: Lucy hasn’t become a prostitute. Except she has. Now she pours wine at exclusive dinner parties… in expensive and revealing lingerie. Along with all the other nearly naked women serving roast swan or whatever the hell the most decadent meat money can buy is, Lucy is another piece of expensive meat. She is the fantasy course. She is womanhood as nothing beyond her utility as a dinner servant and as eye candy. She has been dehumanized in the name of some rich old fuck’s demented idea of sophistication.

Here’s perhaps the moment when I gave up the benefit of the doubt I had been holding out for Sleeping Beauty: after her first evening’s job, Lucy removes the wad of cash from her pay packet and burns one of the bills. (This is an Australian film; I believe the note was an Aus$100.) She burns the fucking money she demeaned herself in order to earn.

What does this mean? Does Lucy hate herself for having demeaned herself? (It’s pretty clear that she does not like the work, and she is subject to humiliation beyond her near nudity while performing it.) Does she hate herself for getting a perverse thrill out of what she’s done? Does she simply love the work and not need the money at all? (Except we know she needs the money.)

We have no idea. Lucy is a blank. Lucy is utterly lacking in personality. And that’s what makes her so desirable both in the eyes of the rich old fucks in the movie and in the eyes of the filmmaker.

I’ve struggled, I really have, to try to find some aspect of satire or rage or just plain basic criticism of this notion — of Lucy as desirable because she’s so blank — in Sleeping Beauty. I can’t find it.

Wait: it gets better. And by better I mean worse. Clara loves, simply adores, how submissive and peachy-pink beautiful Lucy is. So she has a new job for the girl. For even more money, Lucy can drug herself into a stupor, get naked into a bed, and then let some crazy rich old bastard do whatever the hell he wants with her. Short of penile penetration, of course. I suspect Leigh means for us to understand that this is graceful, necessary work Lucy is doing, just helping out these lonely men, for she has Clara explain to Lucy during her interview for the job, back when it was just being a naked waitress, that she “will not be penetrated.” This is meant to be hilarious, perhaps. Or not. It is entirely ridiculous. Particularly when it goes along with Clara assuring Lucy that she’ll “feel profoundly rested” after some disgusting creep licks her body all over or treats her like a ragdoll while she’s drugged unconsciously. It’s just what a girl needs.

This is necessary work, you see, because in one “sad” scene, Leigh assures us that these revolting men are meant to be pitied by having one of them tell his sob story before he gets turned on and reassured of his manliness and his own humanity by climbing into bed with a beautiful nude young woman who has no damn idea he’s even there. Because her defenselessness and her helplessness and her doll-like emptiness are all the femininity a man needs to feel like a man.

Again: I looked for the satire here. I could find none. It gets even harder to find once we realize how completely inert Lucy is: she is so unable to assert herself in any way at all that she can’t even quit that terrible xeroxing job that she hates and no longer needs, now that she has found her calling as a limp living corpse. What are we supposed to make of Lucy? She might be the most passive protagonist in the history of film. She certainly does not have anything that could be called the personal journey that usually occurs to the protagonist of a tale. Things just happen to her. Sleeping Beauty is very much about a young woman who puts herself in positions in which she is actually unable to do anything. Her “journey” sees her beginning as an ineffectual person and moving to a place in which she makes herself into a literal object.

And this is a beautiful thing, in the eyes of Leigh. There is stillness and serenity in the many many long uncut scenes of Lucy being prodded like livestock and Lucy taking her drugged tea and Lucy mutely taking all the crap that is handed out to her. Her tranquility is pornographic… and that makes it all the more repulsive.

Watch Sleeping Beauty online via Amazon Instant Video and LOVEFiLM’s streaming service.

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Sat, Apr 05, 2014 10:32pm

From the vantage point of being an older man (80) I find it curious that seeing “Sleeping Beauty” recently provided me with two seemingly different points of view; agreeing with much of M.J.’s review but also appreciating the movie as a great one. The latter thought needs explanation. When I was in my twenties, living in the Greenwich Village of the late fifties, I had a relationship with someone who Lucy reminds me of a great deal. (Not in literally similar experiences but in the experiences she was living through, some of which she told me about.) I met her when she was 23. She had gotten into some serious psychological problems when she was 19 and her family had her institutionalized because of these things and she was kept under lock and key and was therapized for a year. When she left the hospital she was open for many and varied experiences with men and the only rule she had agreed to with her parents, whom she lived with, was that when she would spend the night away she had to call home and let them know she was o.k. I remember the sound of her voice when she spoke to them at those times and her conversation was always a brief and patronizing one. During our time together she was in her senior year at a NYC university, would work various jobs for short period of times, often sleeping with her bosses or coworkers after work and always, always moving on to new scenes. Our few months together as lovers happened because I was a decent square, didn’t mistreat her and therefore was a novelty in her life. But after a few months my decency quickly becoming a huge drag on her and she moved on. She ultimately met, married and had a child with a guy, who seemed to show her, initially, the casual contempt she seemed to crave. Once married he was revealed as an extremely insecure and jealous man who moved her far away from the hip scene she sought, to an enclave in the Bronx (where he had no competitors to fear). She finally left him for good when the physical abuse began. This is not a digression folks because seeing Sleeping Beauty brought back scene-after-scene of what I remember of my girl friend’s life; her need for an ever changing, aggressive passive pursuit of life, one that never seemed to slow down enough to allow her any self-scrutiny.

MaryAnn Johanson
reply to  Oriskany52
Sat, Apr 05, 2014 10:50pm

What about the protagonist’s behavior in this film leads you to conclude that she is engaging in “an ever changing, aggressive passive pursuit of life”?