Wake Me When It’s Over
by Kristi Mitsuda

Sleeping Beauty
Dir. Julia Leigh, Australia, IFC Films

What sort of woman would submit her body to be used by an unknown man as she sleeps? What are her dreams, what drives her? These are the questions Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s feature film debut, Sleeping Beauty, seems to aspire to address. A manor run by Clara (Rachael Blake) allows older, paying men to spend the night in the company of a young woman willingly drugged into unconscious compliance. The only rule? No penetration; everything else is fair game, so long as it doesn’t leave a mark. To the ladies of the night, the madam says, “You’ll go to sleep. You’ll wake up. You’ll feel profoundly restored.” To the men, “You’ll be safe here. There’s no shame. No one can see you.”

Titled as it is, the film invokes the fairy tale (though tough luck going up against Catherine Breillat’s organically alluring and nearly identically named reimagination, The Sleeping Beauty, released earlier this year), but by Leigh’s admission drew more directly upon Yasunari Kawabata’s novella House of the Sleeping Beauties, as well as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Leigh’s riff takes on the point-of-view of one of the girls as opposed to the male-centered source material (as well as director Vadim Glowna’s risibly pretentious adaptation of the former work), an intriguing feminist undertaking set against so much cultural background noise both high and low (think sleeping porn). You’d think this provocative shift in perspective would yield striking returns, a hope emboldened by the fact that Sleeping Beauty played as part of the Cannes Film Festival’s main slate and is “presented” by Jane Campion, an associative branding suggesting an evocative exploration into female sexuality and desire.

Sadly, neither enchantment nor enlightenment follows. Sleeping Beauty is withholding to a fault, providing only the barest scraps of information about protagonist Lucy (Emily Browning), a perverse set-up since affording her a voice and the expressive capacities of consciousness would seem to be the film’s raison d'être. Instead we’re left expectant for further elaboration about a character who remains oddly unexamined throughout. So what do we know about Lucy? She has a down-and-out mum, a detail gleaned from a few vague scenes, including one in which Lucy receives a call from her requesting credit card information and another wherein Lucy is startled to see a woman we can only assume to be her mother passed out on a bus. She goes to college and works a variety of jobs. At a restaurant and office, for starters. But she seems to supplement her income in other ways as well. She’s shown more than once in a laboratory setting having a tube inserted down her throat, and we infer participation in some sort of study to earn extra cash. Lucy also picks up not particularly attractive men in bars in a manner so efficient and passionless (a characteristic come-on, to a man she met just seconds earlier: “I would really love to suck your cock”) that it wouldn’t be surprising to learn she’s doing it for money as with all else in her life, although no transactions are shown in relation. So does Sleeping Beauty in this way spend most of its running time sketching a girl struggling to get by on her own, as played out in matter-of-fact, extended takes against a cold backdrop of many stark whites and grays, in keeping with a clinical rather than titillating tone. But is this all there is to Lucy’s makeup, her motivations? Financial desperation and premature independence provide a sound back story, but don’t quite paint a portrait of a lady complex enough to satisfactorily answer the burning questions raised by Leigh’s revisionist commandeering of the story.

Parsing other aspects of Lucy’s life doesn’t yield much more insight. She has an ambiguous relationship with a gent referenced as the Birdmann (Ewen Leslie). Cryptic exchanges and inside jokes indicative of a history pass between them, and he may just be the one person Lucy genuinely likes. But not enough is shared with us, so an emotional crescendo involving the pair comes off as empty gesturing. Lucy appears otherwise friendless and without relatives. She lives with housemates who begrudge her presence since she habitually pays the rent late and neglects her share of the chores. At school, she waves superficial “hellos” to passing classmates. A boy she works with at the restaurant, transparently trying to get into her pants, offers her on one occasion a ride home and, on another, a mystery pill, which Lucy takes, then wakes in bed beside him the next day, only to be greeted by his morning-after disdain (deliberately stripped of all eroticism, the film alludes to sex but never shows it). The fact of her casual, recreational engagements with illicit substances and sex (another scene sees her doing lines of coke with a stranger before going off to fuck one of said stranger’s friends) suggests a reckless, hedonistic character, but Lucy is so unengaged she appears immune to pleasure. She doesn’t even seem to be suffering from anything as active as boredom along the lines of Catherine Deneuve’s housewife-turned-prostitute in Belle de jour, to which the character has been compared; one acting out of boredom at least wants to feel or experience something, a desire which Lucy doesn’t evince. The perfect temperament for a sleeping beauty, perhaps. But maybe, as with Deneuve’s character, this stint might for her parallel a sexual awakening of sorts?

Or not. After she works her way up from catering gigs—in which she’s required to don a bra and garter belt—to somnolent plaything, nothing much at first seems to change for Lucy within or without, other than the fact that, after being kicked out by her housemates, she can afford a swanky new apartment with a view. Nothing until, cued by a series of last-minute actions/reactions on the part of the lead, which feel out of character given her heretofore incurious nature and utter lack of regard, we are apparently meant to gather that it’s all just getting to be too much: our sleeping beauty is undergoing an emotional awakening.

Lucy asks Clara to allow her to stay secretly awake during one of the sleeping sessions so she can see what goes on, just once. Although theoretically aligned with Lucy, the audience has strangely been permitted to witness several moments in which various men visit her. And what do men in possession of such a rare situation want? To caress her, call her “cunt,” carry her sleeping body, among other things. But how much more compelling would it have been to be denied this information along with Lucy? To fall naked into bed and wake up the next morning, the intervening period a complete blackout? Perhaps then it would’ve been possible to feel more sympathetically and insistently the imperative she feels during the film’s denouement.

Since Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay, fails to flesh Lucy out in a meaningful way (so to speak, and despite all the flesh on display), the drama collapses under the weight of its unearned self-seriousness, its perceived moments of reckoning. Doubtless part of this failure to communicate an authentic arc has to do in large part with the casting. Browning is charmless, able to accurately express only annoyance; though possessed of a fitting alabaster beauty, she conveys no interiority or hidden depths so that her later outbursts strain credulity. Having taken control of a usually male-dominated tale, Leigh confusingly strands us in the presence of a woman as passive as those found in its incarnations elsewhere. At the end of the day (or night), Lucy remains unknowable, a tabula rasa for others to project onto as ever.