SLEEPING BEAUTY ****
WARNING: This article contains spoilers.
Mainly due to its low profile during production, SLEEPING BEAUTY caught a lot of people by surprise when it was announced in the line-up of the main competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Along with that announcement came release of the film’s trailer, and again, there was a lot of surprise around: what was this thing, with its undeniably Kubrick-influenced framing and titling? Eerily quiet, stylized, and most reminiscent of trailers for Kubrick’s final film EYES WIDE SHUT, the early trailer for SLEEPING BEAUTY looked so self-consciously arthouse – so deliberately pretentious – that I know many people who were instantly turned off by it. I, however, was mightily intrigued, because such a trailer, I felt, must be the tip of an iceberg that was either completely and boldly confident – or wildly, egomaniacally pompous.
Reports out of Cannes did nothing to aid my understanding of what the film might be, as it was the classic polarizer – it “divided” its screening’s audience; indeed, if you believed some of the reports, “half the audience booed while the other half cheered”. Hype and hyperbole are part of the whole Cannes thing, and it took a few days to hear first-hand reports, but when I got them, they certainly confirmed that the film really had gone down as a “love-it-or-hate-it” experience, and that, while many found it obtuse, some truly despised it, and a few were singing its praises, it definitely was “one of the most talked about films at the Festival.”
Not bad for a first-time filmmaker.
Julia Leigh, the writer and director of SLEEPING BEAUTY, is a novelist of some renown (THE HUNTER, DISQUIET), and I suspect part of the reason for her inclusion in this year’s Cannes Competition was the extreme “auteur” nature of her feature debut. SLEEPING BEAUTY has a bold authorial stamp; it is very obviously a singular vision, unconcerned with market forces or traditional concepts of filmic entertainment. Despite the trailer, it is not a desperate Kubrick knock-off; the similarities pretty much begin and end with her framing choices (in particular, LOLITA, THE SHINING, 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and EYES WIDE SHUT), her austere and highly deliberate use of sound design (particularly evoking 2001) and her direction of her actors as flat-talking, disassociative servers of the text (2001, BARRY LYNDON, parts of THE SHINING). That said, even these tonal references go off-subject occasionally: her framing choices may, in Kubrick style, slowly move, after what seems like a filmic eternity (well over a minute in many cases), from perfectly, painterly-framed subject-central vistas to chilly medium close-ups, from which she will conclude the entire sequence; Kubrick was trickier and more fluid, by far, in his shots and editing, even in LOLITA and 2001. Her sound is far more austere than anything in Kubrick; it draws attention to itself (as did the sound design in Justin Kurzel’s similarly artistically ambitious SNOWTOWN) by eschewing any “score” for at least the first third of the movie, rather than Kubrick’s powerful, persuading use of (more often than not) existing or found music (particularly in 2001 and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE; the reverse can be seen in THE SHINING, which is almost entirely originally underscored). Her actor’s cool, and sometimes ludicrously over-anunciated, delivery of dialogue, which only really finds reverberations in Kubrick in 2001, is countered by her lead character’s naturalistic Australian accent, vernacular, and essence.
That lead character is played by Emily Browning, and thank goodness for her, because this is a film that focuses almost entirely on its protagonist, and the central casting is beyond essential: the wrong actor in this role would have destroyed a movie already taking enough risks. Browning and, presumably, her agent, have been unbelievably clever: her leading roles in this film and Zach Snyder’s recently released (and often terribly reviewed, though not that way by this author) SUCKER PUNCH have both been risky ventures, in films that have “divided critics and audiences”, yet will leave the actress in no possible short supply of offers: her boldness, beauty and acting chops in these films carve her out of the mainstream, Rom-Com, boring fare into an acting professional who must be instantly cast, not waited upon to see how she can “set the box-office alight”; I wouldn’t be surprised if Herzog, Tarantino and Woody Allen haven’t left messages with her agent’s desk, let alone a million and one indie filmmakers who may dream she may stay in their realm for awhile. Browning is not only incredibly beautiful, she is achingly youthful, and therein lies the genius of her casting, for SLEEPING BEAUTY is, really, only about one thing: age.
The three main events that form the centre of the very perverse plot of SLEEPING BEAUTY are the three visits Browning’s character, Lucy / “Sarah” (her escort / prostitute name) receive from three (presumably) rich, (undeniably) old men while she is asleep, under the druggy spell of a tea served to her by her Madam, Clara (an extremely gorgeous, controlled Rachel Blake). University student Lucy has eased herself into the world of Clara’s high-end escort service as a lingerie waitress, ostensibly to make rent money, but, under the surface but quite obviously, for more far-reaching, emotionally ambiguous needs. Things take a strange and more profitable turn when Lucy is “promoted” to be a “Sleeping Beauty”: an anaesthetized gorgeous zombie, knocked out overnight in a gorgeous bed in Clara’s home, earning money “for nothing” as her clients do as they will to her, with one rule: no penetration, for, as Clara tells her, her “vagina shall be a temple”.
The three men whom we see, explicitly, take advantage of this service are played, in order, by theatre veteran Peter Carroll, film and television stalwart Chris Haywood, and “Mad Max” villain (“The Toecutter”) Hugh Keays-Byrne, and the casting of these actors is intrinsic to the fabric of these three, extremely demanding sequences. Carroll’s character, MAN 1, is the most well-spoken, effete, and seemingly “civilized” of the trio; he hosts a dinner party where the other two are introduced to “Sarah”, the future Sleeping Beauty, which, although staffed by near-naked women, takes in Beluga caviar and the finest wines, with a Black Tie dress code. Later, during after-dinner drinks, the men sit in expensive chairs, seemingly entirely unaroused, as the waitresses fondle them without expression or passion. But that first night exposes them: Chris Haywood’s character, MAN 2, deliberately trips up “Sarah” in an act of random cruelty, while “MAN 3” (Keays-Byrne) stomps his fists on the table earlier in delighted anticipation of expensive caviar. The men are grotesques, completely divorced from any reality any real audience member might be expected to ever encounter, while Lucy and her workmates, when seen “backstage” – in the kitchen, in the bathrooms – are very real, Australian young women earning pocket money. Carroll has played hundreds of roles, but his persona as a performer is one of sophistication; Keays-Byrne will be The Toecutter until he dies, carrying with him the raw physicality and potential violence of that role; Haywood, amongst the three, has played both good and bad men with equal aplomb, applause, and, at times, audience revulsion.
Once the men enter the silent bedroom of the “Sleeping Beauty”, the themes of the film finally, and powerfully, emerge. Each wants something different from their experience, yet none is satisfied, as a sleeping beauty, it seems, may as well be a dead beauty. Carroll’s character wants to position the Beauty in such a way as to perfectly “spoon” her; Haywood’s more beastly man is horrendously, disgustingly reptilian and rapist-like; Keays-Byrne’s silver-pony-tailed gargantuan seemingly, and sadly, wants little more than to remind himself of his own strength: he picks up and tosses around the tiny sleeping body of “Sarah”, only to drop her unceremoniously onto the floor; being drugged, she notices nothing. The worst – the hardest scene in the film, the worst treatment our heroine receives, the kind of scene people walk out of movies during – is Haywood’s major scene as Man 2, who disobeys the rules and, explicitly and implicitly, violates the rules and the Beauty.
It is this scene – a tour de force by Haywood, and, to her credit, Browning, who remained “as asleep” for the filming of the scene – that reveals the themes of aging, and the despair of aging, and the hatred of aging, and the potential hatred of the young by the aged, that the film seems really about. Man 2, the only real “villain” in the film, is repulsive, despicable, disgusting – and unbelievably sad. There is no doubt that he could not possibly bring himself to say the things he does, to do the unbearably horrendous acts he does, were his subject awake, alive, a spirited, twenty-year old, vitalized young woman. As Man 2 violates the Sleeping Beauty – and our sense of the order of the Madam’s rules, and our sense of the whole order of the film itself, breaking down any idea of the “beauty” that has come so far – we quickly and horribly understand that he is not actually furious at women, nor at “Sarah” – he is furious at himself, as his own aged body, at his disability to get an erection “unless I take a handful of Viagra and some woman sticks two fingers up my anus”. The casting of Browning all comes together in this scene – tiny, child-like, white and translucent, a snapshot of perfection that only grows older by years, not days – she is everything this bald, impotent, ugly old man can never, ever be again – something of beauty, something that can sleep without the nightmare of self-hatred.
Much has been made in Cannes and elsewhere about the ambivalence with which Lucy accepts her terrible fate, and yet to me, this was the emotional truth that pulled me through the movie. Lucy is a complicated and real character, beset by certain financial woes, but whose emotional distractions and complications are more than hinted at. We don’t get her backstory, but we know what’s going on – something is propelling her, something bad, and she needs to learn – she needs to “wake up”. Her best friendship in the film, which exists, essentially, as a touching subplot, is with “Birdmann” (Ewen Leslie), a young alcoholic (and perhaps drug addict; we don’t know) who is preparing for suicide. Their relationship – seen in staccato moments throughout the first two-thirds of the film – is beautiful, and provides a world of emotional layering that subverts the coldness of the world of Lucy’s life as a sleeping hooker. She cares for somebody, and somebody deeply troubled, at that: it is plainly obvious that she herself is as devastated as he is, and her need for his friendship, and the tragedy that inevitably entails, is terribly moving. There is a great desperation in these scenes, and a sense of helplessness: as a viewer, you want to leap in, and say to both Lucy and Birdmann: just get it together, you two, and you could both have wonderful lives.
SLEEPING BEAUTY is some kind of masterpiece. It is my off-hand prediction that, were you to take a random sampling of thousands of people from all over the world, and all walks of life, and showed them this film, only about ten percent would claim to “enjoy” it: it’s that kind of “difficult” film. But for those who do appreciate it, I think they will find it enormously rich, complex, great food for thought: I have not stopped thinking about it since I saw it, and don’t think I will for quite some time. It’s a knockout of a debut feature, and, with SNOWTOWN, a fantastic addition to Australia’s revitalised new cinema of artistic bravery, bordering on recklessness. Great stuff; bring it on.