The Review: Being a student isn’t easy – I had enough attempts at it to know. I certainly don’t envy those entering higher education in this country at present, for while I still had some form of grant to accompany my student loan, today’s undergraduates in the UK are likely to have £20-30,000 of debt by the time they get their degrees. I gathered, as Wayne Campbell once put it, “an extensive collection of nametags and hairnets” while working my way through university, even working on the bins at one point, and that was far from the worst student job I undertook. Julia Leigh’s new film, however, takes the student necessity for income as a jumping off point for an exploration of adult themes, of sexuality and relationships and exploitation.
Emily Browning is Lucy, the student at the centre of the film. When we first see her she’s having a tube fed down her throat as part of a medical experiment, gagging and retching as it’s fed down inside her, but it’s also contrasted with her variety of other jobs, from office work to waitressing. Despite the variety of work she’s doing, she’s struggling to pay the bills, so takes up an advert for silver service work of a unique nature. The change in her income has the potential to revolutionise her life, but her new role also offers the possibility of promotion, and with it a decision on whether to further compromise her morals in search of security.
While the films shares a title with Perrault’s original fairy tale, the narrative theme feels less like that or the Brothers Grimm version and more akin to Alice In Wonderland, as a girl is drawn into a strange and eclectic cast of characters and allows herself to be drawn into events. Much of the drawing is done by Rachael Blake’s Clara, the icy madam who draws Lucy increasingly into this uncomfortable world. But Lucy is a willing participant, driven by greed as much as need, and the film tries to say as much about the culture of youth and poverty as it does about the sexual mores and deviance of society in general. I have to emphasise the use of the words “tries to”, because Sleeping Beauty fails by varying degrees to achieve pretty much everything it sets out to. This is partly both because of and despite Browning, who is willing to invest herself in both the naked physicality and bare psyche of her character, but only succeeds in making that character so dislikeable as to put unintentional barriers between herself and the audience.
Most of the fault, though, must lie with Leigh. It’s possible to see what she intended, and various influences can be detected, but sadly there’s a much better film in the material than the one that Leigh has committed to film. The director instructed her lead to watch Charlotte Gainsbourg’s performance in Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, but Leigh lacks the vision and talent for imagery that Von Trier so repeatedly manages. The themes of sexual exploration feel as if they could have been better handled by the likes of David Cronenberg; the movie attempts surreal imagery and situations, but dialogue and scenes (especially in Lucy’s one attempt at a genuine relationship with another person) come across as arch and stilted, and somehow the Lynchian feel that could have enhanced serves only to confuse; and the movie’s biggest waste of potential is in the scenes with Clara, both in her introductions and later on in the bedroom. It feels, particularly with the staging of long, uncut scenes pointed directly at the audience, as if this is Michael Haneke’s attempt at a pshcyosexual drama, but where Haneke has such flair for making his audience complicit in events or engaging their minds, Sleeping Beauty feels all gloss and no substance, as if the subtext got lost in the post somewhere between shooting and the cinema. It’s frustrating because it feels that any of those more established names might have gotten more out of these ideas, but Sleeping Beauty will do its best to alienate you from its themes, and gets lost in a wash of over-structured visuals and muddled messages, from its unfocused beginning to its anti-climactic and unsatisfying ending.
Why see it at the cinema: Set aside the feeling that you should only be wearing a brown raincoat to see this; in attempting to get inside your minds and those of her protagonists, Julia Leigh avoids titillation and exploitation, but this will be a challenging watch more for the long scenes of irrelevant dialogue and detached characters rather than the actual on-screen events. The cinematography has a timeless feel and is probably the best thing about the film; in the final analysis, it might be about the only thing the film has going for it.
The Score: 3/10