Sunday, December 11, 2011

Squalor: Sleeping Beauty (2011)

Sleeping Beauty marks Emily Browning's second voyage into the nasty realm of slanted, cinematic objectification this year.  In the spring we had Sucker Punch, that unpleasant sensory assault in which Browning played a lobotomized heroine who must escape into fantasy to control her fate in a phallocentric world.  Here, the young actress puts herself in a position with only a touch more agency: she is Lucy, an impoverished university student who takes on a curious position in an effort to pay the rent.  At first, Lucy traipses about in lingerie, serving drinks to parties of wealthy old men in painterly scenes that will call to mind an infamous moment in Eyes Wide Shut. This is not enough. Soon, Lucy is a willing participant in a truly unnerving activity: a sleeping beauty chamber. Drink a laced cup of tea, fall into a deep slumber, and allow your body to be visited by strange men without your knowledge.  They will do what they wish (though our Madam draws the line at penetration), Lucy will never be the wiser.  The concept alone, for many, may sound like a form of torture porn.  In certain ways, it is.  In others, it most certainly is not.
We must, I think, begin to wonder aloud about Browning's personal philosophies.  She's something of a blank canvas, an angelic creature who can be manipulated into surprising, deviant positions.  Browning reminds me of a libertine's innocent; some sort of quietly cavalier female penned by the likes of de Sade through whom sociopolitical statements can be made via uncomfortable, abusive sexuality.  She is posing as Charlotte Rampling, but with none of the ferocity.  In this case, the directorial hand guiding her is female and supposedly one with a specifically feminist objective.  By now you should be crystal clear on this one fact: Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty is no fairy tale, not in the literal sense.  Though it is a work disguised as high art and, perhaps, in some ways deserves to be called such, it is as ill-tempered and unpleasant as Sucker Punch. The problem, as I see it, is that its message is just as conflicted, and in many ways the film is a botched experiment that shows too much in some places while providing mere traces in others.

First time director Julia Leigh seems to dismiss her novelist roots here, eschewing dialogue and exposition in favor of atmosphere.  Sleeping Beauty is a sensory film based in lush visuals, expertly pieced together art direction, and beautifully framed shots.  As such, it's exceptionally well made.  Each aesthetic choice seems infuriatingly precise, which is part of why the narrative itself seems to be missing something.  We're given Lucy's story in bits and pieces which, while seemingly linear, break constantly from what we perceive as the primary thread.  I won't kid you, the result is often frustrating and the choices made here may leave you defeated or desperately searching for a clue to the film's overall meaning.  Is it at all connected to the fairy tale?  I believe that in certain ways, it is playing with that conceit (through a glass darkly).  Things always come in 3s, there's a depthlessness that allows all characters to perform only their functions, there are spells and strange worlds and a fair maiden.  The story is not, as I see it, much related to the Sleeping Beauty tale itself, but may be abstractly tied to a commentary on the shallow 'princess' mentality culturally grafted on to girls in their youth.  Let's not rule that out as a possibility.

Sleeping Beauty does appear to be specifically about objectification. In stripping her characters bare and leaving their personal histories mere shells, Leigh may be working to make a very particular point about societal perception.  She pushes it shamelessly to a level that's more than uncomfortable, that forces Lucy to be a literal human doll, a plaything for the men who visit her to touch, pose, snuggle, molest, and carry without her consent.  Oddly, though, the men who visit her are often just as broken, and while at times they're despicable, there's something terribly sad about them as well.  Both parties, it seems, are searching for something to take them outside of their mundane worlds. Lucy's comes in the form of a descent she seems to view as sexual agency while the old men use her as an escape from their own mortality.  That's just one reading.  It's disturbing terrain for cinema, and is unfortunately presented in a way that's so pretentiously ambiguous it's as impenetrable as the vagina kept off limits (though Lucy spits that it "isn't a temple").    
The problem, as I see it, is that Lucy's character isn't fully examined in the rest of the film.  We can guess at her motives, but, the startling thing here is that for most of the story she appears to be just as dead in her day to day life.  When she's conscious, she reveals emotion only in rare moments: specifically when confronted with those actually dying.  Her roommates do not like her, she moves robotically between her odd jobs, she speaks according to a scripted persona, and reduces herself to topless comfort plaything even when it isn't necessary.  What is she?  What purpose does she serve?  Some have claimed that the film is actually about the relationship between women, how the scenes with supporting female characters become immediately electrified with possibility while Lucy remains stone faced in the presence of men.  I tend to disagree.  If anything, this is perhaps a film about the ways women perpetuate our own objectification, how Lucy is supported, comforted, and pushed into these situations by equally confused female characters.  Getting at that, though, takes some work.  Julia Leigh shows great promise as a director in her debut, and we all know I'm not looking for a happily ever after...but I can only hope that next time her filmic effort has a little bit more story and a lot less naked senior citizen.

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