Every once in a while I see a film that makes me ponder over the question of whether it is good or bad. I try to pour over the events of the film, hoping to find a key to unravel the conundrum. I never come to a definite conclusion, but it’s usually these films that last in my memory. Sleeping Beauty is one such film, one that will burrow its way into the back of my skull and stay with me long after it’s been over.
Trying to classify this film as good or bad is futile. Everything feels out of reach, so much so that it reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, an equally puzzling film. Roger Ebert wrote of that film that to watch it is to feel like closing your hand on air. If I was shameless enough I would have stolen that quote and used it to describe Sleeping Beauty.
The trailer plays off the film’s eroticism, but to call the film erotic would be completely misleading. There’s nudity, but it’s filmed in sterile shots devoid of any pleasure. It can be more accurately described as mournful. The protagonist of the film, Lucy, is played by Emily Browning, a college student working multiple jobs to stay afloat. Just her face alone conveys sadness. Her eyes are soulful, her expression blank and staring. It’s as if life is drifting by in front of her.
Early in the film, two men toss a coin over who get’s to sleep with her. She plays coy and unfazed by being objectified. When she’s offered a job that involves being a sexual object she doesn’t flinch. She has a close friend named Birdman who’s an alcoholic and seems to be the only person that she emotionally responds too. Even those moments are filled with sorrow.
All of these scenes linger long enough that I started to get uncomfortable. Julia Leigh, the director, is constantly forcing us to peer in on these sad human beings as they manhandle our protagonist. And Browning’s gaze is simply a reflection of the lack of any real motivation. Most of these scenes consist of one long take. There’s dialogue but it might as well be considered window dressing, save for a monologue by one of her sexual clients.
Lucy’s new job is equally mournful. Her role is simple: take a powerful sedative, lie naked in a bed, and let men fondle her while she sleeps. We see three men get in bed with her, each performing their own little ritual. One man shoves his fingers in her mouth and burns her with a cigaret. Another tosses her body off the bed. The clientele’s faces imbue a sense of withdrawal. Their arrangement isn’t the height of perverse sexuality but rather the decline of their sexuality. One client states he can’t even get an erection. Making the point obvious is the rule forbidding penetration.
I felt a sense of dread watching these scenes. Browning isn’t given much to do with the role other than lie still, but there’s an element of courage as she lets her naked body get manhandled by older men. For many, these scenes will come off as exploitive and demeaning. The thought crossed my mind a few times. Near the end of the film, Lucy asks to watch what goes on while she’s asleep. Her boss refuses, but she sneaks in a camera. What she sees almost seems like a farce, especially in light of what the audience knows happens.
Many who have seen the film have asked what the point of it is. I think asking is the wrong approach. The director, Julia Leigh, isn’t going for a grand statement. Rather, like her unbroken shots, she’s asking to observe these beaten-down-by-life characters. I could only empathize with Lucy as she drowns in debt and does absolutely anything to survive. I felt a sense of sadness watching an old man admit he’s broken. These are the truths that I experienced watching the film. Just don’t ask me whether it was good or not.