watch, read, listen, observe, absorb

Sleeping Beauty by Julia Leigh

Spoiler alert

M and I saw Sleeping Beauty at the Dendy on cheap skate Tuesday. I’m aspiring to Sid Field’s recommended quota of two features per week, with at least one on the big screen. Cheap skate Tuesday makes it all possible. Friends and relatives take note – movies tickets make great gifts.

Last year, Australian short film ‘Muscles’ made the 2010 official shorts selection of the Festival de Cannes. While artfully made I found the story an uncomfortable and joyless experience, so I was interested in how Sleeping Beauty would affect me. It’s a fascinating premise; a young woman who consents to being drugged so that old men can do what they wish with her, as long as they don’t penetrate her in any way. Clearly, shoving ones hand into her mouth as one gent did does not count as penetration. The sleeping beauty in question is Lucy (Emily Browning). She does it for money, and the old men do it for – well, that’s the interesting bit. One man reminisces over being in bed with his long dead wife, he’s satisfied by a quick caress and sleep; another chooses to put his cigarette out on Lucy’s neck. Over time Lucy wants to find out what happens to her while she’s asleep, and this is what leads to the story’s climax.

Sleeping Beauty is novelist Julia Leigh’s first film as writer and director. As a contemporary novelist she has been highly successful, best known for The Hunter (1999) and Disquiet (2008). Both works won numerous awards and accolades and The Hunter is soon to become a feature film starring William Dafoe. Sleeping Beauty is ‘presented by’ Jane Campion who mentored Leigh in its making, giving it instant credibility. Campion certainly had plenty of good things to say about the film, including ‘Heartbreaking, tender, terrifying. I love it’, her other quotes can be found in the press kit.

I enjoyed it. And according to the marketing material so did the reviewers from The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph UK. But many did not. As we were leaving a woman from one row back shared her opinion with heavy sarcasm, ‘Wasn’t that a cheery film’. Online the reviews were blunt, news.com.au went so far as saying; ‘ A HIDEOUS art house snoozer, Sleeping Beauty strikes the rare double of being as pretentious as it is puerile’. I feel this is an incredibly rough summation, but each to their own.

I’ll tell you why I liked this film, and offer an explanation to why it wasn’t to the tastes of others.

I enjoyed it because it was unconventional; this is no hero’s journey told in a classical 3 act structure. It is after all an art house film, which by definition are not popular because they defy the classical conventions most viewers feel comfortable with.  I appreciated the absence of clichéd Australian content. There were no Australian diggers, outback psycho’s, dogs, toilets or bromances in this film. Don’t get me wrong, I can appreciate films with all of these things, yet it was inspiring to watch an Australian film set in Australia but that looked like it could have been anywhere. This made me focus on the story, not the location. The only thing that anchored the story in Australia was the accents, and even these were refreshingly neutral.

The aesthetic was appealing, to my layman’s eye Geoffrey Simpson ACS did a fine job, as did Shareen Beringer in costume. (I wonder, does the costume designer have a say about the amount of nudity?). I found the restrained use of music interesting. In genre film the music tells you how to feel and what to expect. In all films it heavily impacts the emotional weight of the story. As it does through its absence. I found that the relative silence of Sleeping Beauty was an intellectual challenge to think about how I felt about the story, without be prompted into what I should be feeling. But I suspect that for some people this left them uncomfortable or confused.

Nakedness was essential to the story telling. It might be what drew many people to see it. The film was heralded with superlatives such as ‘erotic’, ‘sensual’ and ‘titillating’. If you find the sight of a fat old man licking the face of an unconscious young girl all of those things then good for you. I found it interesting, but in a fascination for the grotesque kind of way. So I think that some people would have felt that they’d been under sold in the sensuality stakes. There was a fair amount of nudity, sure, but after the first quarter of the film or so it had a numbing effect. M, a hot blooded hetero male remarked, ‘by the end of it I’d had enough of seeing Lucy’s boobs’.

Ever unchanging the erotic becomes uninteresting and this is the point, because instead you focus on the story, not the naked. It’s like a film that shows you that the protagonist survives at the beginning. Then you know the dramatic question is not about whether they live or die, but something else, usually (hopefully) something more profound. Sleeping Beauty is not a porno, its sole purpose is not to titillate, its story is not about sex or prostitution. It has other meanings.

So, to the story. The story’s existential essence was always going to draw a negative reaction. Without a clear understanding of Lucy’s  motivation, the loosening of cause and effect, unresolved endings and by finishing the story on what would have been the second act turning point in a more conventional film, the story serves to muck up a mainstream movie goers mojo.  Some blamed this on a poor script. I don’t think it’s the fault of the script if these were deliberate story choices, it’s just that the departure from the rules of the classical narrative is not to everyone’s taste.

You could argue that the story lacks a protagonist altogether. Undeniably the main character is Lucy, and the story is about her. But if you accept that a defining feature of a protagonist is that they allow the audience emotional access, then Lucy does not fulfil that role. I think this is why some people were not able to engage with the story, they didn’t care what happened to Lucy, they weren’t barracking for her to ‘win’. I found Lucy unlikable (as did her ex boyfriend who remarked on her unpleasantness). Her actions weren’t implausible, but we weren’t granted access to see the story from her point of view and understand her motivations.

Mainstream audiences like a clear cause and effect progression and generally speaking they respond well to unity. When Lucy slept with her cafe boss it did nothing to further the story. The subplot of Lucy’s relationship with the agoraphobic Birdmann (Ewen Leslie) was unresolved. Why didn’t she prevent his suicide? Why didn’t she report his death? Although this subplot is linked to the climax of story, it fuelled her horror in discovering her client’s death, for some it people it would have left too many questions unanswered. Even in mainstream films these days it’s ok to have an unresolved subplot , but only if the main plot is resolved, which in classical narrative terms Sleeping Beauty’s main plot was not.

To stand by the rules of mainstream narrative Sleeping Beauty would have had another act. During this act Lucy would’ve learnt what was wrong with her life and come out of her ordeal a changed and possibly better person. The audience would know beyond doubt what happened to Lucy and through her have learnt something that expands the limits of their own life experience. Even if it’s only, ‘Gee, next time I try to save a planet of blue aliens I’ll never do that…’. Instead, the story of Sleeping Beauty stopped. On a downer.

So that’s why I thought it was great, but it’s also why others responded negatively. For me, the sign of a good film is that it stays with me, that it causes me to turn it over in my mind for days on end. It certainly did that.

Transmission Films, 2011.

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