A lot of girls I know have been eagerly looking forward to seeing Sleeping Beauty, a film directed by Julia Leigh, starring Emily Browning. I think it’s because we all secretly love fairy tales, especially when they come in adult form.
Also, Jane Campion is in some way attached to the project, and I’m a complete sucker for her films—Bright Star, The Piano, A Portrait of a Lady, An Angel At My Table—because they’re always about strong women caught up in impossible love stories. Every time I date someone, I see if they pass the Jane Campion test, which means that I come to them in the dark of the night, with nothing on but a cape, and see if they make love to me violently. If they do, I get married to someone else.
The biggest fan of Jane Campion that I know is Shark Mobczak.
I was waiting to watch Sleeping Beauty with Citibank, but then on Sunday afternoon, it was cold, and Sadie Lady came over for a visit. Flipping through the movies On Demand, I came upon the flick, rentable for $6.99.
“I really want to see that,” Sadie Lady said, the very picture of a slumbering beauty underneath a blue fleece blanket.
“Rent,” I said, and clicked the button, vowing to cut myself thoroughly to make up for the betrayal to Citibank.
I knew the movie wasn’t going to be great. It’s been through a number of extensive edits since it came out of Cannes, where it got very mixed reviews. It’s also Australian. I knew that there was going to be a lot of attempts at incorporating feminist theories about female sexuality, and a lot of that strange, dream-like, non-sensical cuts in the manner of Catherine Breillat, the ultimate French feminist auteur, who directed her own, much stranger version of Sleeping Beauty in 2010.
The movie opens with the scene of Emily Browning, who is a gamine and fey beauty, having a tube stuck down her throat without any anesthesia, by a vampire-y looking man wearing a lab coat. “Oh no,” I said to myself, as I winced painfully. “Here we go.”
What proceeded was a story about a young university student, Lucy, who is very beautiful, and very fucked up. Hints are dropped that she was abused by her extremely alcoholic mother, and thus is reckless with her own body.
After a number of scenes in which she blows coke, sleeps with a middle-aged man as a dare, refuses to pay her rent, fucks up at her job, and drinks vodka out of a water glass with her Pee-Wee Herman-esque best friend, who talks to her like he’s James Joyce, she answers an advertisement in a campus newspaper calling for waitresses who serve food in their underwear.
Arriving at the interview, she is poked and prodded by the surreally elegant Clara, who is the madame of the operation. Lucy is told that she is an extraordinary beauty, but that she will become even more extraordinary after her training. She is also told that no matter what happens, her vagina will never be penetrated. “My vagina isn’t a temple,” Lucy says to Clara.
“Waaa waaa,” I said to the television screen.
Lucy falls into the job easily, which pays $250 an hour. At first, she merely serves wine in white lacy lingerie, her tiny nipples popping out of the top of her bra. Her breasts are meager blessings, and they made me fond of her, as I have similarly sparse offerings.
The other girls who do the job wear all black bandages that wrap around their nether regions, and they are professionals.
One of them tells Lucy to match the color of her lipstick to her labia, and then scolds her when she doesn’t take the order seriously.
“Waa waaa,” I said to the television screen.
Lucy turns out to be great at turning tricks, so Clara promotes her to become the Sleeping Beauty, which means that she comes to Clara’s house, takes a shower, puts on a gorgeous flowing robe in mauve velvet, and is given a dose of a sedative that makes her dead to the world. Then she is placed in satin sheets.
Once she is truly asleep, Clara brings in a disgusting old man, who is told that no one is watching him. He strips down, and does with Lucy what he will, except that he is asked…not to penetrate her vagina.
The men all have different fucked up issues that span the gamut of misogyny—hatred towards women, violence, carelessness, mommy issues. One has a penis so small that even if he had penetrated Clara’s vagina, she wouldn’t have felt the after-effects of it. The whole thing is like Belle du Jour without any of the female empowerment, because Lucy can’t feel any of it. She’s merely a blank slate on which decaying creatures can enact their strange fantasies, maybe once, maybe a few times before they die.
Lucy’s character, who Julia Leigh sets up as being so damaged that she will destroy her own life to numb her emotional pain, is at first totally down with the job. Then, her aforementioned best friend kills himself in the bed beside her, and she kind of loses her shit. Kind of being the operative word.
The end, basically. Sleeping Beauty falls asleep, only to be awoken 8 hours later to Clara, no Prince Charming in sight. That’s not how the fairy tale is supposed to go, but maybe I’m not getting the feminist theory.
The problem with the movie is that first of all, it’s not clean. There are a number of scenes that don’t really make sense, and they are edited together choppily. But the sloppiness, which is symptomatic of an amateur (Leigh) imitating an auteur (Breillat)—look at me be clever!—is kind of salvaged by Emily Browning’s beauty, and by the overall gorgeousness of the film, which is color flushed, steadily shot, and very tasteful. It’s also expected, which makes it forgive-able.
The downfall, in my opinion, is that Emily Browning is not a good actress. Apparently she replaced Mia Wasikowska, who was originally slated to star in Sleeping Beauty, but had to drop out when she got cast in Jane Eyre, which is a far superior film. If you are still reading this review, we are like-minded. Trust me when I say that you must see it.
Mia Wasikowska is fantastic, and she would have played the part of the rebellious, damaged, reckless child that is Lucy to perfection. Emily Browning, on the other hand, plays it flat. She doesn’t have enough range to move from defiance to deterioration. When she does fall apart, it’s clear that she is affecting a meltdown, not actually having one.
All in all, I’m glad I watched it. I liked looking at Emily Browning’s body—which is shot unflatteringly, cellulite appearing in ripples, despite the fact that she is rail thin—and comparing it to my own. I liked the gorgeous turquoise bed. I like thinking about whether or not I would do a comparable thing if I really needed money. I liked watching Browning herself, who is gorgeous and puffy-lipped and sexually very compelling.
I don’t want the hour and 40 minutes back, but at the same time, I’m happy it was on Caleb’s Cablevision account, which means that I didn’t have to pay for it. Watch it if you’ve been looking forward to it, but maybe skip it in the movie theaters.