There are four moments in Sleeping Beauty, director Julia Leigh’s assured debut, in which the actress Emily Browning lets her impassive facade crack: a late-night swim; an embrace with a dying friend; a bikini wax; and (befitting the movie’s title) an awakening to a kiss. Focus on those four glimpses into Lucy, the financially struggling student Browning portrays, because that’s all you’re going to get; for the rest of the film, Lucy reveals nothing except for her skin.
It’s easy to see this film, which played at Cannes earlier this year, as shallow or exploitative. Browning spends enough of the movie naked to make a Google image search for her a minefield for years to come, and in the manner of lousy soft-core, the movie’s deadly, almost absurdly, serious. But I think Leigh’s going after something weirder than titillation; indeed, I don’t think she’s interested in eroticism at all. (Like this week’s Shame, Sleeping Beauty shows a lot of skin but never makes you feel very good about seeing it.)
Instead, Sleeping Beauty is intensely interested in issues of power and control. Lucy’s lack of resources requires her to relinquish control again and again. She makes photocopies in an office under the watchful eye of a pissed-off supervisor. She subjects herself to medical experiments to earn cash. (Twice we see her invaded, disturbingly, as a researcher threads a tube down her throat into her stomach, Lucy gagging quietly all the while.) And she catches the eye of older men in hopes of coming home with a windfall. Early in the film, she demands one gent in a bar flip a coin several times to see if she’ll sleep with him, and if so, when. Even fate exercises its will, as the man wins the toss again and again, ensuring she belongs to him.
Lucy’s stature shifts dramatically, though, when she answers a want ad, in search of easy cash. (On the phone, we only hear her answers: “Slim.” “Pert.”) Soon she’s employed by a sophisticated madam named Clara (the mesmerizing Rachael Blake) to enact the fairy tale of the film’s title—sort of. Lucy drinks a powerful sleeping draught and lies nude and unconscious in a luxurious bed; Clara’s clients pay dearly for the privilege of doing anything they want to her short of intercourse.
Browning is tiny and frighteningly exposed in these scenes, but Leigh turns the tables: In the moment of her greatest vulnerability, Lucy exercises a curious power over the Johns who pay for her time. Once-civilized men turn into monsters or children, abusing Lucy’s slumbering body or curling up next to it, filled with unnamable sorrows. Is it Lucy’s beauty that so transforms them? Her helplessness? The corruption of their souls? Has she been empowered, or are they all victims: she of the clients, the clients of their twisted desires? Leigh never makes it clear, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of seeing men screaming, weeping, falling to their knees, Browning’s tiny body lying serenely at the center of the frame.
I guess it doesn’t say much about an actress that her most powerful scenes take place when she’s feigning sleep, and, indeed, you could make equally compelling cases for Browning’s excellence and amateurishness based on the evidence of this film. (If you’ve seen her before, it was in the awful Sucker Punch, in which her acting was hard to judge, given that her outfits had more work to do than she did.) What’s clear, though, is that Browning is bold and willing to embrace difficult material, which, if Kate Winslet’s career is any guide, suggests an enjoyably uneven path ahead of her.
Is Sleeping Beauty hard to watch? At times, yes; the scenes of a sleeping Lucy, particularly, can be hair-raising in a horror-movie, what’s-going-to-happen-next kind of way. But the film’s pace is stately and deliberate; Leigh shoots long scenes in a single take, the camera panning back and forth slowly, watching the action. Lucy is framed so carefully, in fact, that the movie edges into portraiture, and the effect on the audience is nearly as anesthetizing as the powder Clara whisks into Lucy’s cup before each encounter. That’s why those four moments of real emotion are so effective: They wake us up as well.