Film is a powerful medium, and the best ones can make you feel strongly one way or the other about fictional characters and their make-believe lives. These people exist only on the screen, and yet we can feel joy, fear, love, hatred and so much more for them as if they were living and breathing beside us. Most movies never accomplish this feat.
And Sleeping Beauty is no different.
Instead Julia Leigh‘s debut film manages something decidedly unique. The lead character is passive, bland and as emotionally inspiring as a wash cloth, but the actress who plays her? You just may find yourself feeling bad, embarrassed and fearful for her.
Lucy (Emily Browning) is a college student like many others. She attends class during the day and at night works in a restaurant or office and occasionally volunteers for paid medical experiments. Sure, some nights she heads to swanky bars to do lines of coke with Asian women in the bathroom, but mostly she works hard. It never seems to be enough though as she’s always behind in her rent and at risk of being booted out by her roommates.
Until she responds to an ad for a silver service waitress to work private parties. The interview is brief but invasive, and it comes with two warnings. Don’t make a career of this. And indiscretion will not be tolerated.
“Your vagina will never be penetrated. Your vagina is a temple.”
After an interview that includes being felt up in her underwear Lucy reports for her first assignment. She strips down to her lacy underthings and joins a group of women in pointless lingerie. (When the breasts, vagina and ass are visible what’s the point in wearing any strips of fabric at all?) They serve dinner and drinks to a group of grey-haired men (and one probable old lesbian), and Lucy is sent home cash in hand. If it sounds sexy I apologize… think the party scenes from Eyes Wide Shut but with far less attractive women and you’ll have an idea how dull it actually is.
Easy money for playing a scantily clad waitress, but the woman in charge calls her and ups the ante for her next job. Clara (Rachael Blake) invites Lucy to her house and offers her a drugged cup of tea to knock her out for the next few hours. If she agrees, her unconscious and nude form will be placed in a luxurious bed to sleep it off… while a high-paying client gets to do anything he wants to her.
Except penetration of course.
That’s the film’s first act, and what follows are a series of creepy and odd interludes featuring old men stripping down to their wrinkly and sagging birthday suits before climbing into bed with the equally nude Lucy. Some caress her, others berate her, and so it goes. None of the men offer up enough to be considered as real characters in their own right aside from their obvious sadness, desire or anger. Lucy, and by extension Browning, is nothing more than a prop in these scenes, and while that makes some sense in the context of these men’s needs it’s difficult to justify and come to terms with poor Browning’s situation.
In between we’re introduced to Lucy’s friend (?) Birdman, who may be agoraphobic and/or deathly ill. It’s difficult to tell. It’s clear he loves her, but her reciprocity is in doubt. Lucy’s a blank slate through so much of the movie whether she’s unconscious or not, and her muted emotions combined with illogical actions keep her distant from the viewer. She runs around earning money for rent, but then burns the cash. She signs on for abuses she never comprehends and swallows drugs before their effects have been explained. Her aimlessness translates into pointlessness for the viewer.
The film’s best scene also happens to be the only one where Lucy shows real humanity. It’s a tender moment on a train where she sees a woman sleeping in her seat against the window. Lucy moves beside her to watch and perhaps see what she herself looks like while in that bedroom of perversions, and when she notices a small bit of drool on the woman’s lips she wipes it gently away. It’s a curiosity, kindness and awareness sadly missing from the rest of the film.
Browning does a fine job with what she’s given, but it’s hard to tell exactly since the film has little interest in emotion or personality. She’s an attractive young woman so there’s no negative risk to showing off her body which she does frequently and explicitly. Clearly she saw something in the script and director that didn’t quite translate to the screen, but between this and Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch I hope her agent has since advised her to stop signing on to misguided films about gender politics.
There’s nothing wrong with a damaged character trying to mute the world through narcotics and a blissfully unaware participation in sexual perversity, but some degree of back story and motivation are needed to create something and someone truly compelling. The closest Lucy offers to a history is a brief mention of an alcoholic mother and the revelation that some guy at some time wanted to marry her. She’s detached from reality in an uninteresting and flat way which means everything that happens to her may as well be happening to a beautiful yet inanimate marble statue.
The Upside: Emily Browning is a porcelain beauty.
The Downside: Emily Browning apparently lost a bet; passive lead character; script asks uninteresting questions with no answers and teases relevance; slow pacing may turn off some viewers.
On the Side: Mia Wasikowska was originally cast in the role of ‘Lucy’ but dropped out to do Jane Eyre instead.