Sitges 2011: SLEEPING BEAUTY Review

It's hard at first to know exactly what to make of author Julia Leigh's directorial debut Sleeping Beauty. It is both a narrative fiction and a surreal dream/nightmare. It is as indebted to European filmmaking as to the author's native Australia (in fact, I might even argue that were it not for the language and accents of the actors, one would suspect this a French film reminiscent of Catherine Breillat.) It is an extremely disturbing look at sexuality young and old, the knowledge a woman has that (unfortunately) her body is still her greatest asset and weapon, and the dreams of most old men are still dirty ones. I imagine feminist film theorist Laura Mulvey would have a lot to say about this contemporary vision of woman as object, under the gaze of men.

Lucy is a university student working several jobs to make ends meet: she is a waitress, she works as a copy girl at an office, and she participates in medical experiments. But she also goes out at night having sex with strangers, rendering her sleep patterns and her ability to even attend classes and do her homework confounding. She answers an advertisement that would seem to indicate some type of prostitution. What she will be is a half-naked waitress at dinner parties, attended by rich old men, who are serviced by scantily-clad women. She is told at the outset that her vagina, which is a temple, will never be penetrated, indicating that some sexual favours will be asked of her. Lucy, however, does not see her vagina or her body as any kind of temple. Her body is penetrated, and so is her psyche, willingly and yet with a permanent damage of which she is not yet aware. She wants a richer life and lifestyle, and so agrees to engage in other activities of the prostitutional kind, ones that require her to be drugged into sleep.

Almost every scene is presented to the audience via a single camera, which either remains stationary or pans slowly to follow the action. This slow, methodical gaze is reminiscent of Mulvey's film Riddles of the Sphinx, which attempt to subvert the male filmic gaze for a female one. The audience is invited to understand that gaze, to understand how, through its difference from more traditional camera techniques, the male gaze has dominated how woman, particularly in a state of undress, as viewed. It is both fascinating and uncomfortable, wherein lies its strength. In their stillness, the images are burned in your mind. Emily Browning's Lucy is not a girl to be liked; but her countenance, her general disregard for the welfare of her mind and body, and her one place of refuge with the man she loves garner both sympathy and frustration. She is countered with Rachael Blake's sophisticated and tightly contained Clara, the Madame, who is what Lucy might become if she can gain more self-respect. These two women sit together in front of the camera, slightly facing each other, as if afraid of the vision of the past (in the case of Clara) and the possibility of the future (in the case of Lucy.)

And this gaze is turned not just on the women, but the men. As noted, these are old men, indulging in the last fantasies of youth. As we watch these old men strip naked (and there are as many naked men as naked women in the film, which is refreshing), they are seen in their vulnerability and their unattractiveness; the male fantasy of sexual prowess at any age is exposed as a myth. These men are aware of this; some accept it, others deny it through rage and abuse. All the while, the camera remains steady, never allowing the audience to look away.

This is quite an extraordinary debut. It is not the kind of film that one enjoys. Instead, it quietly and precisely forces itself upon the audience, causing a constant debate inside one's mind as to sexual stereotypes, penetration of the gaze, the mind, the body, and the role of film in our concept of male and female age and sexuality.
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