If, in the wake of the just-released House of Pleasures and this summer’s The Sleeping Beauty, the bars for prostitution- and Grimm-themed films are high and low, respectively, then suffice to say that Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty is arriving to a crowded field. Bearing little surface resemblance to the fairy tale from which it takes its name, the film begins with an unexplained medical experiment, and in a way that’s what the ensuing 90-plus minutes amount to as well: Leigh’s take on the story is a study in detachment and unspoken dissatisfaction, traits that imbue the proceedings with a barely-contained sexual energy lurking beneath a thin veneer of calm. When first we meet her, Lucy (Emily Browning) is already using her body toward a number of questionable ends and blasé enough to leave details of individual transactions to a coin toss. Depending on one’s view, she either excels at taking things in stride or fails at taking them seriously at all. Lucy is on what many would consider the fringes of society, an altogether lonely position from which she derives little feeling at all. Browning is oddly at home in the appealingly soporific milieu; she exudes a devil-may-care attitude which underscores how ubiquitous the sex trade really is, thereby driving one of the main points home: Leigh intends for her film to unsettle us not only because of how bizarre it is, but, more to the point, because of its simultaneous banality. Were our protagonist to enter this world innocent, the film would turn into a too-explicit morality tale. As it stands, it’s more to do with an already jaded young woman further removing herself from the world at large.
“Please do not think of this as a career,” Lucy’s madam says to her upon their first meeting. “Just work hard for a short amount of time.” (She then tells her she won’t be penetrated and that her vagina “is a temple,” an assessment with which Lucy disagrees.) Drugs are an aspirin for the soul, the woman says, and while Sleeping Beauty may be most comparable to a sleep-inducing ether, it’s a fairly pleasant reverie. Films of its ilk—quiet, stylized, leaden, detached—often count a growing sense of unease among their driving forces as a substitute for more conventional, narrative-driven momentum, but Sleeping Beauty is something of an exception in that it relies on neither. Too dark to be considered wonderment yet hardly mean-spirited enough to qualify as sadistic, the primary mood cultivated here is one of bemused curiosity. We don’t feel, as we do in something like Eyes Wide Shut, that we’ve entered a seedy underbelly from which there can be no easy exit; Lucy’s clientele consists exclusively of bored, elderly men whose wealth allows them to do what they please. This is nothing new, nor is it especially shocking, even at its worst—and I don’t mean that as a criticism. Sleeping Beauty is less an exposé and more a mood piece whose primary goal is to immerse both protagonist and viewer in a strange environment and discover how all involved react. There’s no ill will intended, and though the exact purpose of the experiment (like that which opens the film) isn’t always entirely clear, then at least the sense of character-as-specimen is intriguing enough on its own to carry our interest.
Like many fallen women of yore, Lily from Baby Face in particular, Lucy is both a victim of, and participant in, an unjust system in which the only way for a woman such as herself to advance her position is by exploiting her body. Rather than bemoan this sad state of affairs, she runs with it. If you accept the idea that there’s a difference between selling out and cashing in, this is it. Whether it’s a flaw or a saving grace that Leigh never pushes things quite as far as we expect her to is difficult to gauge, but I lean toward the latter. Sleeping Beauty elides more than it exhibits, often leaving us as in the dark as Lucy during her sedated encounters with the clients whose faces she’ll never see, and it’s in this privileging of mood over incident that the film shows its true colors. The eventual fracture of Lucy’s cooled demeanor is as earned as it is necessary, but one gets the sense that it’s also a brief moment of consciousness to be followed by a long period of dormancy—only now, we see it as the self-defense mechanism it’s always been.