Saturday 15 October 2011

Rude awakenings: "Sleeping Beauty"

On their old, late-night Movie Club programme, the critics Andrew Collins and Stuart Maconie used regularly to hand out a prize for whatever struck them as the Rum Film of the Week. The Australian novelist-turned-director Julia Leigh's Cannes-lauded oddity Sleeping Beauty - altogether little to do with the Disney animation, or really the fairytale it was based upon - would well qualify for that particular title. It may end up as 2011's Rum Film of the Year. Hell, it could even stand as Rum Film of the Decade, given its ripe peculiarity: this is a work that ventures beyond the arcane and outré to be something else (in the) altogether. It's very, very, very rum, and I think I mean that as a compliment.

This is the tale of young Lucy (Emily Browning), a student paying her way through college with work as, variously, a guinea pig in a medical laboratory, an office girl limited to running off endless photocopies while her boss looks disapprovingly upon her, and - by night - as a nightclub hostess, in which capacity she begins having sex (for money, we assume, although it's never shown) with a variety of generally unappealing middle-aged businessmen. Still, that rent still won't pay itself, and so Lucy chooses to advance to the next level (or descend further still) for her latest assignment: serving the wine at an exclusive gentlemen's club where model-types in peephole bras and crotchless panties offer up cordon bleu cuisine to old geezers in search of some Proustian rush by waking up next to nubile young things like Lucy. Interviewing for this, er, position, Lucy is told "there will be no penetration. Your vagina is a temple" - which is not something one usually hears at JobStart, say.

Jane Campion has her name on the poster, conferring some kind of feminist credibility on proceedings, but the set-up is otherwise pure Catherine Breillat. (Breillat, indeed, has filmed a costume drama with the same title, as yet unreleased in the UK.) Leigh's vision is markedly more voluptuous than Breillat's earlier treatises, which were aggressively dialectical yet spare (if not sparing) in what they showed, the better for the message to come through loud and clear. Sleeping Beauty, for its part, adheres to a mise-en-scène of country houses, silver service and Amazonian supporting waitresses; even the crotchless panties look pricey, for once. To some extent, this obscures what the film actually has to say: I wasn't ever sure whether Leigh's target was the grinding relentlessness of male desire, or an idea of female beauty as something fluid (Lucy changes her name twice in the course of the film), unobtainable, and finally deadly.

If we take what unfolds as literal and not metaphorical, then the film would appear to be pro-prostitution, claiming that if you have a body to die for, you may as well whore it out for all it's worth (easy to imagine some dubious style mag conceiving of a fashion shoot replicating the film's look); yet it also reads as anti-sex, regarding coupling as a menial task, as beneath Lucy as her wiping down of the grout in her grotty student bathroom. In as far as there is sex here, it has the smell of the laboratory or the workplace about it: Lucy's deepthroating skills are evident only in those scenes where she swallows a balloon on a long tube as a way of recording chest pressure. Only in drug-induced sleep does she come to get any respite, which I guess makes Leigh's film a reversal of the fairytale, where the heroine was waiting for a prince's kiss to wake her up - but I still couldn't honestly say whether this can be claimed as an actively feminist line, or just part of a rallying text for slackers, the work of a writer who's been abusing the snooze button a bit.

Two elements save the film from haziness and pomposity. The first is Leigh's compositional sense, which is self-aware and amused enough to deposit a filthy mattress in the alleyway the first time Lucy emerges from her house as an elegant lady of the night; throughout, there's a compelling disjunction between the boldness of the image and the vagueness of the ideas underpinning it - as though the whole film were being dreamt before our eyes (but whose reverie or nightmare is this, then?) The other is Browning, a rare former child star (Lemony Snicket) for whom the words "I want to do more grown-up work" clearly mean something, who gives the generally passive - indeed, oft-catatonic - Lucy occasional, and welcome, flickers of spirit and inner life.

Unlike the pale and fragile babydolls Breillat was fond of torturing, this is a girl who appears to exist at least some of the time in the real world: Browning does a credible dawn-hour walk of shame, and if the film could be reduced to a single image illustrative of its tone, it would be the embarrassed semi-smirk she gives as one of her fellow hostesses checks to ensure Lucy's lipstick has been exactly coordinated to match the colour of her labia. The hang-up the film has on such details suggests Leigh, like Lucy, is catering to an especially pedantic form of pervert, but in truth Sleeping Beauty is so perverse, so singular (and quite possibly so muddled) in what it does that it's impossible really to discern whether it's a failure or a success at this proximity, or after a first viewing: I was struck by it on some aesthetic level, but I wondered whether Leigh could or should have done more to challenge my gaze. As it is, the film is a gorgeously blank work, a hyper-accessorised question mark.

Sleeping Beauty is in selected cinemas.

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