REVIEW: Strange, Hypnotic Sleeping Beauty Sends No Clear Message -- Thank God

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When Australian writer-director Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty made its debut at Cannes last May, the responses among critics I talked to veered from bland outrage to vexed boredom. That doesn't leave a lot of middle ground, and I had to see Sleeping Beauty a second time before I was reasonably sure what I thought about it. I'm still not reasonably sure what I think about it: The picture is clinical in its approach and its technique, yet it leaves so many questions unanswered -- it's straightforward in a vague, maddening way. It's also strangely, obliquely compelling.

Emily Browning -- who recently appeared as a mini-skirted vixen warrior in Sucker Punch and, a few years before that, as Violet in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events -- plays Lucy, a perpetually broke Australian college student who needs to do a patchwork of jobs to make ends meet. She also has an odd mishmash of friends whose respective roles in her life are never clearly explained: There's some science dude in a lab coat who's grateful that she'll allow him to regularly drop a narrow tube way down her throat; there's also a shy, bookish shut-in gent (played by Ewen Leslie) who's thrilled when she comes to visit him -- and not just because she pours him a bowlful of cereal splashed liberally with vodka.

But the central events of Lucy's life at this point are episodes through which she literally sleeps: After answering a newspaper ad, she becomes the employee of Clara (Rachael Blake), a cool blonde Tippi Hedren lookalike who's a madam of sorts. Lucy's first gig with Clara involves donning pale vanilla lingerie that looks as if it were made out of spun sugar and pouring brandy for a group of leering, obviously rich oldies. (Her compatriots in this exercise are bare-breasted brunettes with slicked-back hair out of a Robert Palmer video.) Then Clara enlists Lucy for a different kind of work: Lucy is drugged, with her consent, with some unidentified powder whisked into a cup of tea. Then, in her slumber, she's placed naked beneath the coverlet of a golden-brocade bed. Clara's clients -- mostly the same rich oldies seen earlier -- can buy time with the "sleeping beauty," but there is one strict rule: They cannot penetrate her.

They can, however, talk dirty to her, lift her up and drag her around, or just nestle peacefully next to her. And you can bet they do all of those things. Lucy's curiosity eventually gets the better of her, which brings the movie to an unexpected and strangely tender climax. But through it all, you're likely to ask, as I did: Exactly what is going on here? And why?

Yet the more I think about Sleeping Beauty, the more I admire Leigh for not coming right out with a sharply defined motive or message. It wouldn't be hard to make up some blah-biddy blah-blah explication of Sleeping Beauty by grabbing a few convenient feminist-lit code words about women's agency when it comes to their sexuality, or the possessive nature of male desire, or somesuch. But I think Sleeping Beauty is best experienced as a piece of fragmented poetry rather than a strict ideological tract. Visually, it's an exquisite piece of craftsmanship: As shot by DP Geoffrey Simpson, the picture has a pearlescent, dreamy glow, especially when it comes to Browning's impossibly peachy skin, of which there's a lot.

Many of the movie's compositions are painterly, and Browning herself is like a Burne-Jones heroine in action. Her performance here is measured and controlled; mostly, her character just allows things to happen to her, barely responding. That's part of the idea, perhaps: Lucy is a receptor, and though she appears to have taken charge of her sexuality (she sleeps with whomever she wants, picking guys up in bars when it suits her), she really hasn't a clue what she's doing. The point, perhaps, is that there's something so mysterious about sexual desire that not even the most modern freethinkers among us can ever fully comprehend it. Maybe that's really all this semi-surreal, hypnotic picture is about. And maybe that's enough.

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