Director: Julia Leigh
Stars: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie
Plot: A university student takes a job as a drugged ‘Sleeping Beauty’, giving old men an odd, erotic experience. But it’s not long before she begins to wonder what happens while she is asleep.
Not so long ago, the mere mention of Australian cinema would be met with the inevitable references to the Crocodile Dundee franchise. Despite a purple patch in the mid-1990s with films such as The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), Muriel’s Wedding (1994) and Shine (1996), only now and then have Aussie movies been massively successful at the box office. Recently however, there has been a resurgence in filmmaking from Down Under, resulting in many more Antipodean films regularly permeating the global film and DVD market. But will Sleeping Beauty continue this trend and appeal to a wide audience?
Student Lucy (Browning) makes ends meet by volunteering as a test subject at the university’s laboratory, as a waitress at a local bar and also a part-time job in an office. She is seen at a nightclub offering herself up for sex, although it is never revealed whether or not she gets paid. Lucy’s flatmate shows an obvious dislike for her and she spends time with her friend Birdmann (Leslie), who appears to be attempting (and failing) to recover from alcoholism. Lucy responds to a job newspaper advertisement and meets the mysterious Clara (Blake), who explains that the job is as a freelance silver service waitress, dressed in lingerie, following this up with the random statement that ‘no penetration is involved’. After a body inspection, Lucy accepts the $250 an hour job offer with no reservations.
Her first assignment is to serve a group of elderly gentlemen and one woman, at a posh dinner. After managing to do her job reasonably well, Lucy returns home and burns the money she was paid. She is then invited back by Clara for a completely different job – she is driven to a large mansion in the country where she is expected to submit to the men at the previous dinner, albeit drugged. Once again, Clara assures her about the lack of violation, Lucy takes the drug via a cup of tea and then goes to bed as requested. Upon waking, she is disorientated but quite willing to go back for more sessions as she is getting paid well. Unbeknownst to Lucy though, not every ‘client’ is respectful and she suspects something is not quite right, setting out to discover what really happens when she is unconscious.
Sleeping Beauty is little more than a pretentious, muddled, mess of a film. With practically zero cohesive narrative, the scenes feel like they have been literally cobbled together from a mass of short films to create one feature. You can tell from the very first reel that this is going to be a plodding, dull experience. Emily Browning’s Lucy is seen walking into a laboratory for an unexplained test while the camera keeps perfectly still – it never tracks her movements or gives a wide shot to show what else is going on in the room. This is a popular technique employed by ‘daring’ directors who think they are out-Kubricking Stanley Kubrick. There’s nothing wrong with doing something different, but perhaps Julia Leigh thinks she can distract us with odd camera angles so we don’t notice that the storyline makes absolutely no sense whatsoever.
There are at least twenty (if not more) scenes that could be completely cut out. Emily’s ‘relationship’ with Birdmann, which has no bearing on anything else that happens in the film, is strange to say the least. There’s a hint that they might have attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings together in the past, but we are left in the dark. Emily randomly asking an old boyfriend to marry her at a wake and getting out of bed to get partially dressed and then getting back in, are just two completely inexplicable scenes that are shoved in – almost to flesh out the running time. Then there are the oddest scenes of all, which are based around Emily’s weird job. Exploring a theme of sexuality in this way is an interesting premise, but the execution in the script is very wide of the mark. One old gentleman (if you can call him that) enters the room with Clara and goes on a major literary ramble which is supposed to convey his sadness at missing opportunities when he was a young man, but instead it only adds to the extreme pretentiousness and inexplicable plot which is frankly baffling.
Sleeping Beauty is certainly thought-provoking, but unfortunately not in the way it was intended. With sparse dialogue and a vast array of unexplained subplots, what should be an interesting exploration of life and death is instead the most ill-judged, confusing 95 minutes you will probably ever experience.