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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: Sleeping Beauty, The Woman in the Fifth, & The Lady

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: <em>Sleeping Beauty</em>, <em>The Woman in the Fifth</em>, & <em>The Lady</em>

Sleeping Beauty: Having already portrayed a Pussycat-Doll Alice in Zack Snyder’s CGI derangement of Carroll, Emily Browning embodies a drowsy Princess Aurora in Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s archly Lacanian investigation of Perrault. First seen playing lab rat with a medical balloon being inserted down her throat, the first of the film’s sundry invasions of body and psyche, Browning’s blank, creamy college nymph (a naked performance in every sense of the word) is an opaque creature of impulses whose sexual adventurousness and need for money lead her to a lavish chalet for upper-crust sybarites, Leigh’s version of the dark castle in the woods. There, she tastes the magic potion that turns her into an unconscious canvas for the carnal needs of sagging, goatish clients; “No penetration” is the sole rule in these sessions, though it isn’t long before the somnolent Belle de Jour becomes obsessed with finding out what takes place while she’s drugged. Though she’s clearly studied Haneke and Breillat, Leigh isn’t a natural filmmaker; symmetrical compositions and unheated long takes abound, yet concepts and monologues that might have worked on the page turn arid on the screen. It’s about passivity and revolt, ritual and discovery, the excavation of a fairy tale’s psychosexual text, and the thorough debasing of it. It’s also enervated, ludicrous, and the sort of unique debut that makes one impatient to see what comes next.

The Woman in the Fifth: Following the Brit-indie naturalism of Last Resort and My Summer of Love, Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski embraces his inner Polanski with this intriguing but contrived mystery-drama. Revealing the characters’ backgrounds and objectives bit by gradual bit, it follows an American novelist (Ethan Hawke) who arrives in Paris bent on reviving a long-frayed relationship with his estranged family. Turned away by his wife and robbed of his belongings, he takes refuge in a room above a seedy tavern populated by stock types (volatile proprietor, seductive waitress, abrasive neighbor). While working at a warehouse of vaguely illegal operations and sneaking peeks at his six-year-old daughter, he meets a haughty literary translator (Kristin Scott Thomas) whose mysterious appearances give the first hint that the writer’s grip on reality may not be all that tight. As in his previous features, Pawlikowski’s own role behind the camera as a visitor results in fresh-eyed views of the area, from the Eiffel Tower glimpsed from the rooftop of a squalid lodge to the blood-crimson inside of a Fifth Arrondissement home—contrasting worlds uneasily navigated by the alienated, increasingly anxious protagonist. Unfortunately, the tantalizing build-up of details soon folds itself into a twisty, undercooked psychological thriller, squandering its personal musings about expatriate artists and the trapdoors of creativity and culminating in possibly the most risible fade-to-white since Black Swan.

The Lady: As generic as its title, Luc Besson’s paralyzingly pious biopic of Burmese firebrand Aung San Suu Kyi is enough to make one look back fondly at the time he imagined Joan of Arc as a wide-eyed Milla Jovovich riot grrl. Some of that nuttiness is evident in the opening, as folkloric icons give shape to Burma’s past and the 1947 junta that claims Suu Kyi’s father is staged with a blend of music-video beats and Leone-esque close-ups. In no time, however, the film cuts to the late 1990s and settles for repetitive, unilluminating scenes of protests and speeches (intercut with a glowering general who shows his nefariousness by shooting dogs at a golf course), a boilerplate inspirational score that lets distracted viewers know when to clutch their chests, and underlined homilies like “a saint is just a sinner who keeps on trying.” In the few times it pops up, Besson’s usual kinetic style comes off as nervousness, or possibly impatience with his own blandly sanctimonious material. As Suu Kyi, Michelle Yeoh tries vainly to bring human shades to a monochromatically noble role; as her unfailingly supportive British husband, David Thewlis does a fair Jim Broadbent impression. “I hope she’ll be rewarded for what she’s done,” sighs one of the heroine’s sons. Agreed, but surely something better than this colorless pageant should be in order.

The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8—18.