When you create a film and title it “Sleeping Beauty,” you had better not make it boring. Otherwise, you’ll get reviews utilizing every possible play on the word “sleep,” but more importantly, word of mouth will spread using the same types of puns. When you use a title made famous by the Disney animation, you’re going to have to guard against those comparisons as well. As you can see, this film is already on the defensive.
To put even more pressure on Sleeping Beauty, before it has even begun, is the fact that it is the directorial début of a novelist. Julia Leigh also wrote the screenplay, but it is her first time stepping behind the camera to helm a film production. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it means an even bigger risk was taken by the studios, and just as many debuts fall flat as they do flourish. Luckily, Leigh’s is a success, even if her film isn’t going to be something that many people are going to enjoy.
To start the film, we begin by watching the daily routine of a young woman named Lucy (Emily Browning). The first scene made me cringe, as we find out that one of her many jobs involves testing out medical equipment. We watch a tube being inserted down her throat. This is done in one unflinching shot that has the opposite effect on the viewer. Later on, we learn she also does office work and works at a restaurant, but the medical testing was by far her worst job.
Why does she need to work three jobs? That’s really a good question. We learn that she’s behind on her rent, and also goes to school. Maybe school is really expensive, but she only seems to have one class, which can’t be too heavy a burden. She’s renting a room from people she knows, and I wouldn’t think that would be that expensive either. Why she doesn’t pay her rent on time, I’ll never know. This isn’t a film that’s going to lay things out for you.
Because working three jobs isn’t enough for Lucy, she inquires about an ad in the paper that requires her to serve dinner to old rich men while wearing lingerie. It pays $250 an hour, although it’s freelance work, we’re told. She works once, and after she gets home, she burns a $20 bill. Why? Again, I don’t know, and it’s actions like this that make me think she isn’t wanting for cash. Regardless, working multiple jobs, including the dinner-while-wearing-lingerie one, continues for most of the film, even as her performance gets so bad that she sometimes sleeps on the floor while working.
Sleeping is something she’ll end up doing quite a bit as the film continues on. She was told when she took the server job that there were opportunities for promotion. She gets that chance later on, when she’s told that she can take a drug, lay naked in bed while passed out, and sleep for a few hours. Oh, and an elderly man will come in and sleep with her while she’s knocked out. “Sleep with” in the literal sense of the meaning, as actual intercourse is forbidden.
Not that Lucy really cares. She doesn’t seem to care much about herself, and would probably have accepted the job without the binding rule. She’s the type of nihilist that will do whatever anyone wants her to do at the flip of a coin. At a bar, she’s approached and asked if she wants some cocaine. “Why not?” is her response. Later, two men she just met actually use a coin to decide which one would have sex with her that night. She doesn’t care, although come to think of it, I can’t remember her saying “no” once to anyone in the film. She’s very polite, even if she has no regard for her own body.
Perhaps the one person in the world she cares about is an alcoholic named Birdmann (Ewen Leslie). They meet a few times over the course of the film, each time at his apartment, and they have the strangest conversations. At one point, they watch television and Birdmann talks about a rat that was once thought to be extinct, but was recently discovered. If you think that is going to have something to actually do with the film, metaphorically speaking, you may or may not be right.
There’s a lot of symbolism in the film, and if you thought this was a film that’s going to make it easy on you, you can look elsewhere. You’re going to have to infer a great deal about the characters and their reason for doing what they do for most of the time you watch them. I can see this being seen by some as a lack of character depth and development, but I think it’s all there and just hidden behind imagery and a classic fairy tale. The way I saw Sleeping Beauty, it actually does steal a couple of things from Disney cartoon. Unfortunately, giving that away now might change the way you view the film, so instead, go in with as fresh a mind as you can. This is a movie that will reward subsequent viewings.
If there’s a problem here, it’s the character of Lucy. She’s often difficult to like, and because she’s such an apathetic person, not a lot goes on. She’s little farther, for better or worse, when the film ends than when it began. None of the blame can go to Emily Browning, as she plays her without fear, but the way the character is written means that she’s not exactly amiable or has a decent enough personality to build a film around. This is largely forgotten about once it gets going, but upon reflection, making her grow as the film progressed would have improved it as a whole.
Regardless, I was engaged by Sleeping Beauty. Is it for everyone? Not at all. If you like artsy films that are there for you to figure out instead of being told everything about them, then it might work for you. It has a solid performance from Emily Browning in the lead role, and it has enough imagery and symbolism to keep you coming back for another watch. That is, if you don’t fall asleep during the first time. I didn’t have trouble staying awake, but I can definitely see how this isn’t a film for the general audience.