SLEEPING BEAUTY Review: Provocative Erotic Shock & Awe That Becomes Tedious

Sleeping Beauty fails to hit the profound note director Julia Leigh intends and never really rings true.

rating: 2

(My Cannes review re-posted as Sleeping Beauty is released in the UK today) Oh dear. One of the most hyped films of the whole 64th Cannes Film festival, Julia's Leigh's supposedly shocking and eye-opening Australian film Sleeping Beauty opened with even less than a whimper at yesterday evening's press screening... playing to absolute silence at the Debussy. You could have literally heard a pin drop when the credits rolled and I don't think the silence was out of the kind of bewilderment at what was being screened to us that the filmmaker intended. It was more... 'WHY... was that screened?" I've heard of films being booed at Cannes but never anything like this - just radio silence. After a couple of seconds of no reaction there was a timid and apologetic applause perhaps from Leigh's team who worked on the movie but no critic was giving this thing any note of recognition. Was it out of surprise that the film actually ended that nobody clapped or whistled? I certainly was waiting around for the film to begin and go, ya know, somewhere... but it never did, and then it was curtains drawn, go home, cya later. Two hours of my life that I will never see back. It can never be a good thing when critics at both sides of me were laughing at the reaction. It actually makes me wonder if the Cannes executives actually screen the movies sent to them for consideration before adding them to the in-competition section and it's all the more baffling when it is the debut movie from this particular director. There really is no reason for a film as lifeless as this to get such a grand scale showcase though I suppose it's the crash and burn, epic fail style arthouse flavour that film festivals are so well known for - Cannes especially holding a reputation for it's inability to balance between the sublime and the ridiculous. Emily Browning stars as Lucy, a university student (I think Maths, but couldn't tell you for sure... though clearly no attention was given to this detail) who holds down half a dozen jobs to simply pay the rent and survive (office busybody, waitress, a kind of experimental medical lab rat) who finds an ad for a job that whilst exploiting her body, will bring her larger paycheques a day than she currently makes in a month. She might even think the job will awaken her from the tediousness and the numbness she feels in life as she plods through the drudgery without a genuine hint of life or even the breaking of a smile. She finishes everyday with a bottle of vodka, sleeping-walking her way through it all with passive sexual encounters with men in bars. Working for Clara (an icy cold, stern Rachel Blake), she will provide a 'silver service' to rich, older gentlemen which basically involves her pouring wine and arranging cutlery at lavish dinner parties for them whilst wearing skimpy, tight lingerie. The pay is generous - $250 dollars an hour - with a very realistic chance for promotion if she performs well... though in one of the odd moments of humanity from Clara, she advises Lucy that this could never be a full time career gig, just something that pays off the bills and the student loan for now and then move on. Attempting to mirror what Steven Soderbergh did so wonderfully with his own escort film The Girlfriend Experience with porn star Sasha Grey, we see how Lucy balances her personal life with that of her unusual occupation and her control of sex but the frustrating narrative pacing quickly emerges and novelist Leigh is so determined to keep the film moving at a snails-pace - very soon you find yourself struggling to be interested. It isn't quite a walk-out film because the filmmaker is talented enough to tease and suggest that she is about to quicken the pace at any given moment and put her foot down and you are begging for it to happen, but sadly it just never does. You think it might happen as the film turns into it's provocative second act. After a while playing the slutty waitress, the higher paid gigs do quickly come Lucy's way - her promotion being she is now a 'Sleeping Beauty', a girl who takes a substance drug that will keep her completely asleep over night and she won't be awoken by the physical acts old men perform on her whilst naked. And naked or at least undressing is what she is for the majority of the rest of the film as we witness three old dudes going through the same routine of - a sit down at the end of the bed Lucy is lying on with Clara chat to discuss that they can't hurt or penetrate the client - an in front of the camera undressing of the men showing all their bits and pieces before each have their own fetish desire they wish to subject our sleeping beauty too explored and shown in graphic and lingering detail (involving one shoving his hands down Emily Browning's throat whilst licking her face) - and then slow fade to black. But it all gets so tedious. All the scenes have the feeling of 'uh-oh, what disturbing act is going to happen now' but it does get very old after the first. The same routine is played on a loop... pervy guy walks in, takes his clothes off, another penis in your face... and oh what are we going to see this time? The camera lingers too long that it's just not shocking enough to repulse. It's more just a case of bizarre repetition, Leigh devaluing both our shock at Browning's nakedness and the acts performed on her. And there's far too many scenes of a single shot of two people sitting and chatting, or scenes being repeated. I desperately wanted the movie to really begin, kick in on a higher gear but it truly never gets above 20mph. The film consistently is trying to have it's cake and eat it too. YES, it's clear that Lucy is in NEED of money (she gets chucked out of her rented room with her friend before she accepts the promotion) but she picks the most expensive apartment she can find as her new paid accommodation and although we never see her gain pleasure from what she does, she is most certainly curious and a willing participant. So the odd moment when she burns a $100 bill (I think it was) purposefully at the sheer revulsion at what she had to do to earn it and it never really rings true. Sleeping Beauty is an attempt at provocative filmmaking in the vein of an Eli Roth movie (but without the blood and gore) but it never hits the profound note Leigh intends. Her translation from stories via book form to celluloid is a tough one but it is gorgeous to look at, Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson has varying locations of different light and texture and makes it all work. Unfortunately, the film rests on the shoulders of Emily Browning and she struggles with hitting the right note and is never convincing at delivering her dialogue, or her emotional outbursts throughout the film as she struggles to lead this demanding life. The end scene is her chance to show her range but it falls painfully short and although you do have to credit an actress who allows herself to be completely in the nude, repeatedly showing off her breasts, ass and bush - and to be still and lifeless enough to believe she is sleeping whilst perverted men take complete advantage of her, it's the clothed, character parts where she falls down. A subplot involving a character named the Birdmann I could never get away with either and didn't fully understand. I may have been a little overly harsh in my response on last night's podcast but Sleeping Beauty definitely fails to hit the notes Leigh was striving for. 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Matt Holmes is the co-founder of What Culture, formerly known as Obsessed With Film. He has been blogging about pop culture and entertainment since 2006 and has written over 10,000 articles.