Film Review: Sleeping Beauty (Spoilers)

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.

{ My interpretation of the ending: }

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.

8 thoughts on “Film Review: Sleeping Beauty (Spoilers)

  1. Hi there!! Just wanted to tell you how well your interpretation of the story was. I wasn’t sure if i wanted to see the movie after viewing the trailer but now I’m leaning towards yes!! One question though… I don’t quite understand the ending. She seems so upset? Why is this?

    1. @ Maliha: You’d have to see the movie. I think it’s the release of emotions that have been building up all throughout the movie, and it’s a combination of anger and terror at the situation she finds herself in.

  2. I think the film is about the assault of the female mind and body. Even if there is no penetration it doesn’t make any act upon the body any more holy. When Lucy states that her vagina is not a temple I think its not her saying she is ambivalent about her body, but her pointing out Clara’s attempt to make the actions about to take place any better than if she was awake and consenting to intercourse- is a joke. If anything the lack of consciousness well any act is done to her is more frightening because of the unknown. Furthermore, it seems like the movie was an exercise about a woman’s objectivity and how despite any social advances, men will still want to find a way to dominate over a woman. And then it gets into a discussion of ego’s and what makes man masculine qualities wire them to want to do such an act. The old man who ‘sleeps’ with her twice and dies the second time, is a perplexing character. I couldn’t listen through his monologue. I understand his wife died before him and he spent his life having a sense of detachment and the death of his wife furthered that for him therefore he is in search of the tenderness he no longer can attain. What gets me is are all rich white men seeking to ‘deflower’ a young girl? To use one to any way he wishes. What’s up with a business were a madame permits this actions and assures that the men will be safe to act upon these urges. It’s disturbing and I think that’s the point. The film is meant to disturb you and question how we demoralize intimate actions with overtures of sexualixing women in all mediums of entertainment.

  3. I’ve read about 20 reviews of this movie after viewing it so that I could find out if others understood it as I did. I’m somewhat disappointed, but I’m glad to see that your review, “L”, was the closest to my own thoughts.
    As a writer, I’ve come to find that the best poetry is one that is obscure enough, yet provoking enough, to elicit several strong, polarized reactions. This movie does it in spades.
    I don’t often “get” artsy films, usually because the director/producer tries too hard to turn the film into an enigma. Julia Leigh weaves this together nicely. You simply have to look for the answers rather than having them “spoon fed” to you. Far too many folks who have criticized this movie negatively seem to want to be “entertained” rather than being required to think. I can only remember one other movie that hit me this way; “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” It also had the same sensual, surreal quality to it.
    Emily Browning’s character, Lucy, is subtly drawn during each vignette, though I do have to admit I was confused at first. But, as each segment segued, it slowly knit together a portrait of a woman who was just existing – and how many of us have gone through that? She worked mundane jobs with no future, but she was apparently brought up in the mindset of “if you’re going to do something, do it well.” She dislikes her tasks, but does them well – almost to the point of obsessiveness. But eventually, the mind-numbing boredom of her job (making copies) gets to her. She’s working all these jobs and finally shows up late. Her boss says, “People do get fired here, you know!” and then, when the boss doesn’t get the “I’m sorry” she’s looking for, tells Lucy, “Okay, you’re fired!” to which Lucy responds, “Thank you!”
    But people use her in different ways and apparently always have. Her mother calls her – at work – for a trivial matter, asking to use her credit card. Her friend, the alcoholic, confesses he was in love with her but afraid to tell her – and even though she “loves” him, she knows he will only hurt her as well (she asks him to marry her and he says, “of course,” but in a flippant manner). He then does hurt her by calling her after he OD’s. The man she actually loves, but couldn’t commit to, tells her to fuck off when she asks him to marry her as well and her co-worker just wants to get high and make it with her. Lucy’s character is serenely beautiful on the surface, but has an ugly, narcissistic, detatched, “commitment-phobic” interior that created a tension for me, compelling me to continue watching
    Many people have wondered (or were bored by) the soliloquy of the old man and “didn’t bother to listen” – which was a huge mistake. He summed up Emily’s character by telling his own story of going through a lifetime of being “detached” in his search for financial gain – exactly what Lucy is doing. Because of this, he is lonely and alone, even though he is well off. He regrets every moment because it has left him an empty shell.
    I would also note that Rachel Blake’s character, Clara, is much the same way and warns Lucy “not to count on the money, use it wisely and consider it a windfall.” She too is alone and lonely from her quest for financial gain. (Money can’t buy happiness).
    I would also note that every single man that uses Lucy mentions that they have erectile dysfunction… i.e., they are emaciated… castrated in a way that reduces everything they are and have to nothing because they are incapable of “being a man”. Each has their own story… the old man longs for tenderness and affection that he can no longer have; the misogynist takes out his frustrations of not being able to function by harming her and the “weightlifter” by no longer being the swashbuckling savior that carries the fair maiden to her rescue. They are all successes and yet, all failures in their own way.
    I truly enjoyed this movie for its many subtle layers. As I said, it was like a good poem.

  4. @ Pyro: This movie is in many ways an inversion of the fairy tale. I found it interesting that when she asked the “prince” to save her by marriage, he simply told her to “fuck off.”

  5. Thank you!!! It makes far more sense now, and in a way is much more beautiful than it was creepy. I see the sad artful beauty so thank you for sharing this!

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