Sleeping Beauty is the 2011 directorial debut of Julia Leigh, starring Emily Browning and Rachael Blake. Browning plays a young college student named Lucy who is hired by Clara (Blake) as a server on a mysterious erotic waitstaff of lingerie-clad women that caters to wealthy clients, and from there progresses to being a “sleeping beauty.” For each engagement she is driven to Clara’s house, where she takes a powerful sedative in a cup of tea that induces an extremely heavy, imperturbable sleep, and while she’s asleep like the dead, the client can do whatever they like with her unconscious body, short of intercourse. She is promised that when she wakes up, she will have absolutely no memory of the experience.
I’d been looking forward to this movie for a long time, ever since I saw the intriguing trailer. I will have to watch it again sometime to see how I feel about it after a second viewing, but I suspect that it’ll only grow on me. Emily Browning is brilliant as Lucy. She’s so lovely, and there’s a sadness about her, a “vulnerability,” though I don’t know if that’s the right word; her character seems strong and indomitable, but also appears fragile, with her pale, ethereal, doe-eyed beauty. Lucy has a perfect, easy grace; she is armored and dainty, utterly unapologetic, independent, very capable…she seems to be a rebel and individualist and vaguely insolent, while always remaining perfectly gracious. And a bit mysterious, I suppose…many of her actions are unexplained, though they don’t necessarily perplex me as things that need to be “figured out” or made sense of. She’s opaque without being exactly an enigma. There’s something youthful and alive, and slightly fierce or feral, about her, an understated intelligence and sensuality, without an excess of explanation. I don’t feel that the movie really tries to explain away Lucy’s actions and characteristics (just as the rest of the movie is very much veiled); or to victimize her.
This movie is very quiet and restrained. At no point is it overwhelming or overly demonstrative. It’s like a series of vignettes, each revealing just a little, which is obscure and doesn’t readily render up its “meaning,” and the whole movie has a certain opaque quality. Visually, it’s quite beautiful. It has an austerity but also a gorgeousness…a rare visual elegance. The style is flawless, and very different from most films. I feel like there wasn’t a single shot that wasn’t necessary, that could be considered “superfluous,” and each shot is perfectly framed and controlled. Its leanness stands in contrast to the tendency in modern movies towards more overwrought, chaotic qualities. It’s evocative of vintage cinematic styles, giving the film a retro feel. It also has a – I don’t know what to call it, a slightly frightening, haunting quality, a sense of foreboding, a hint of something sinister and chilling. I’m not sure precisely how it achieves this, but for me it definitely has an undertone of still, sterile, white eeriness, which comes across beautifully in the trailer.
I see the ending as a kind of total inversion of the traditional story of Sleeping Beauty, where the prince wakes her with the kiss of true love. A repeat client (the first one Lucy had, in fact: a dolorous, cryptic old man who just gently touched and admired her sleep-heavy, milk-pale body, and then lay side by side with her in a semblance of sleep) has requested that he be allowed to die in bed with the unconscious Lucy. (Presumably the body would be taken away before she comes to, with her being none the wiser.) Having agreed to this request, at the start of the session Clara doles out for him a lethal dose of the same drug that gives such a total, beautiful sleep to Lucy. Some time after, Clara is sitting at the foot of the bed, having checked the old man’s now-dead body, and, observing that Lucy is deathly-still and doesn’t respond to her touch, she panics, in sudden and uncontrollable fear, terrified that she may have died, and she desperately tries to wake her up, shaking her by the shoulders violently, and even trying to give her mouth-to-mouth respiration (the “kiss”). When Lucy suddenly awakens, disoriented and shocked, coughing and sputtering, she looks around, only to see the old man lying dead in the bed next to her. It’s not her prince, but this sick old man who’s used her to fulfill his strange macabre-erotic death wish. It’s not the prince’s kiss which awakens her, but Clara’s breath of blind panic and terror. At this point she breaks down, screaming, sobbing, and pounding her hands against the headboard, in a long, unbroken torrent of pure, naked, raw, piercing emotion.