Cannes 2011 Review: Julie Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty

The second film of the day, following Midnight in Paris this morning, Sleeping Beauty is the only Australian film included this year, starring Emily Browning (who hopefully won’t be a high-profile casualty of Snyder’s sickly Sucker Punch) as a University student drawn into a mysterious hidden world of beauty and desire. Or at least that’s what the marketing material says.

Regardless of what they position this erotic, chiller had already been picking up a lot of buzz, possibly because the official synopsis that I read as part of the bulging press pack (stuffed lovingly into my press PO box this morning) suggested a film about a girl who willingly becomes a Sleeping Beauty – or someone who takes a sleeping pill and allows herself to have “erotic experiences” with “old men” that she has no control over.

Funny that, because Browning’s whole role in Sucker Punch can be labelled as overly eroticized and submissive too. Zing!Anyway, Sleeping Beauty is a million miles away from Woody Allen’s gentle and charming romantic fairytale – where Allen seeks to engage his audience with the sparkle and magic of romance, Julie Leigh consciously seeks to make her form Wonder Cinema (by her own admission). She states as much in the marketing pack, in the process appeasing my fears that her horror was going to be little more than an Eli Roth-esque exploitation shocker:

I wanted to make a film where the audience responds with ‘Did I really see that?’ and ‘Did I really hear that?’ and ‘Can such a thing really exist?’. Holding the breath. Eyes wide. A response of intense wonder rather than shock. Cinema as a wunderkammer, wonder-room.

It’s also a stark contrast to Allen’s idea of the fairytale. Here Leigh reverts to the darker side of Grimm, using the traditional children’s story as a reference point only, and conjuring ominous feelings about that story from other reference points – from stories of King Solomon sending out for young virgins to sleep beside, from internet sleeping girl pornography, from novels by Yasunari Kawabata and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and from her own recurring nightmares. So, the creepy intentions of the film are very much presented through the filter of Leigh’s own fears: and if a filmmaker is making a film about something that scares them, rather than something that is merely commercially “hot,” the effect is usually successful.

Sadly, Leigh’s quote above is strangely prophetic, because I definitely did come out think “Did I really see that?” Or more specifically, “Why did I see that?”

What was presented supposedly as a retelling of the fairytale has nothing to do with it, other than having a sleeping girl in it, and any suggestions otherwise are spurious and misleading. The film is in no way engaging, the main character is entirely unsympathetic and the script is devoid of anything approaching interest, and for a film that sets its stall out so early to be exotic and captivating because of its dangerous subject matter, that’s pretty unforgivable.

There is no hiding from the fact that Sleeping Beauty is provocative filmmaking: but what it provokes is probably not what the director intends. The narrative is sloppy, and while you can see that Leigh is trying to be profound, the script (which Emily Browning somewhat bogglingly suggests is the best script she has ever read) is full of the kind of empty sentiment teenage poetry, big on obtuseness, but lacking in actual substance under the cold light of day.

The acting is incredibly difficult to judge: aside from Emily Browning, who I’ll move onto momentarily, everyone else feels like ornaments, inconsiderable and unworthy. And Browning herself struggles badly, because her character is so badly formed. Are we supposed to empathize with her? Because it’s impossible. Are we supposed to invest in her personal tragedy, that pushes her to the desperate measures of whoring her body out? Well, that’s impossible too, because she isn’t a victim of circumstance or situation – which is confirmed when instead of using the money to better herself, she sticks with her two jobs, her casual promiscuous sex and her dangerous habits. She is as deplorable a character as the men who defile her.

In many ways, Sleeping Beauty is the natural progression from Sucker Punch: for large parts of that film, I was aware that several parts of my body were wondering what Emily Browning might look like naked (since that seemed to be Snyder’s primary intention), and by the end of Sleeping Beauty I was, believe it or not, sick of the bloody sight of it. Nudity is a wonderful thing in cinema, when used properly, and indeed it has its place here, since the idea is to shock through sex and sexualized violence, but as with anything, the more it is used the less effective and impactful it becomes.

It is a terrible thing when you start to wish the beautiful young lead would stop taking her bra off, but such is the effect of Sleeping Beauty, I’m afraid.

And just as sure as I am that the film is a terrible experience, I’m also sure that there will be those critics out there, the pseudo-intellectual beard-strokers who value films not on their merit but on some imaginary scale, which allows them to call something important where everyone else just says it’s tosh.*

The one enduring question I have, and that’s some achievement in the sea of What The Fucks that swam out of my gaping mouth in the immediate aftermath, was what exactly a third of Sara’s clients was getting out of picking her up and dropping her like a doll during their time with her. Who knows, perhaps my sexual repertoire isn’t as broad as I once thought, but it simply didn’t occur to me as a sexual experience at all. I am immediately reminded of that line in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas that deals with something similar:

With a bit of luck, his life was ruined forever. Always thinking that just behind some narrow door in all of his favorite bars, men in red woolen shirts are getting incredible kicks from things he’ll never know.

And at the end of the day, that’s just it. If there are people out there who genuinely did enjoy this film, I simply cannot relate to their experience of it. I struggle to think of many films I have found so impenetrable, and so unintelligible, and I find myself questioning why it was even included in the Competition line-up at all.

The Upside: Very little of note, unfortunately. Though the overall premise is a good one (hence the initial buzz no doubt), and would probably have worked well as an atmospheric J-Horror. Just a shame that Leigh seems to have consciously sort to make a film that has no explosive impact, producing a dull and regrettable film in the process.

The Downside: Everything else – it is awkward, meandering and pretentious, and the artistic approach here is incredibly badly thought out. And, how dare they make Emily Browning’s nudity anything but profound.

*Editor’s Note: Our author Simon is British, for those who haven’t been warned. If the context clues didn’t help, “tosh” refers to “shit” and not the comedian and popular television show host.

Our Cannes coverages is just starting to heat up. Quel dommage!

Born to the mean streets of Newcastle, England the same year that BMX Bandits was cruelly over-looked for the Best Film Oscar, Simon Gallagher's obsessive love of all things cinema blossomed during that one summer in which he watched Clueless every day for six weeks. This is not a joke. Eventually able to wean himself off that particular dirty habit, and encouraged by the revelation that was One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, he then spent many years reviewing films on the underground scene, throwing away thousands of pounds on a Masters Degree in English in the process, before landing feet-first at the doors of British movie site, where you can catch his blend of rapier wit and morbid sardony on a daily basis. Simon is also a hopeless collector of film paraphenalia, and counts his complete Star Wars Mr. Potato Heads collection among his friends.

Read More from Simon Gallagher
Get Film School Rejects in your email. All the cool kids are doing it:
Previous Article
Next Article
Reject Nation
1 Comment
Leave a comment
Comment Policy: No hate speech allowed. If you must argue, please debate intelligently. Comments containing selected keywords or outbound links will be put into moderation to help prevent spam. Film School Rejects reserves the right to delete comments and ban anyone who doesn't follow the rules. We also reserve the right to modify any curse words in your comments and make you look like an idiot. Thank You!