Cannes Film Festival
“My vagina is not a temple.” So says terse, inscrutable college student Lucy, her dry conviction belying an edgeless china-doll face, immediately after being told (instructed, even) otherwise by an employer with a less-than-honorable stake in the matter. It’s a loaded line, one that reveals she knows much more than her elders think she does — yet much less than she thinks she does — and it’s one of several moments in “Sleeping Beauty,” Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s unnervingly precise directorial debut, that denude sex of any movie mystique it usually carries.
If that makes the film sound explicitly carnal, it isn’t: the words “no penetration” are repeated so often in the script as to became a mantra, and it sticks to that promise. But in telling the story of a girl falling into the most eerily art-directed prostitution ring this side of a Freemason hazing ceremony, Leigh’s way revisionist fairytale bluntly points out the ways in which our society has over-designed sexual experience even as it has undervalued raw human contact; “Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, But Were Afraid to Touch” might have been a more specific title.
“Sleeping Beauty” comes so heavily stocked with vivid sexual imagery, ranging from the witty (rows of bare-breasted hostesses looking markedly like the girls from Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video, made over by Jean-Paul Gaultier) to the nightmarish (a nude, abuse-spouting pensioner crouched over a young girl like a mantis devouring its prey), that too few reviews will focus on the thoughtful, richly ambiguous character study beneath the provocations.
“Humane” might be a stretch for a film this severe, this stainless-steel in its makeup, but Leigh is plainly troubled with as well as by her protagonist: Lucy may be stingy with words and expressions alike, but she’s no blankly symbolic victim, dropping sparse fragments of backstory that allude to so many years of interfolded error, neglect and over-defensive self-treatment. As played by 22 year-old Emily Browning in a startling breakthrough turn (forget “Sucker Punch,” if you haven’t already) that balances a child’s wan irresolution with short, bitter stabs of wit, she’s a calculatedly incomplete being — which makes her drugged, unconscious debasement at the hands of a string of wealthy older clients, seeking only tactile sensations with no emotional returns, that much harder to watch.
“Sleeping Beauty,” then, is a film populated with people who need to be touched — including Lucy’s unfixable alcoholic friend Birdmann, with whom she repeatedly dances around the possibility of intercourse — but none of them by each other. Leigh underlines the chasms in understanding or caring between characters with the film’s arrestingly rigid formal architecture: exquisitely shot in crisp shadow by Geoffrey Simpson, composition upon composition appears assembled with tweezers, dividing and petrifying human figures with the hospital-corner aggressiveness of Annie Beauchamp’s production design.
Leigh’s mise-en–scène may proved too mannered for some tastes, but for a woman of letters, her fluency in visual storytelling is perhaps the most pleasant surprise in a film not short of them. (Not that her day-job skills are neglected, either. The script abounds with sharp, teasing turns of phrase, cresting with a vast, chilling monologue for Peter Carroll as the oldest and most passive of Lucy’s clients, culminating in a repeated admission of defeat: “All my bones are broken.”)
Anyone still describing “Sleeping Beauty” as an “erotic drama” after its Cannes premiere can only have seen the marketing materials and skipped the movie; its atmospherics wound so tight that the breaking of a glass elicits an actual gasp from the viewer, we’re too busy fearing for Lucy to be remotely titillated by any of her exploits. Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty needed only a kiss to retrieve her from indefinite slumber; in Julia Leigh’s exciting, upsetting, only occasionally over-determined debut, such simple intimacy seems light years away.