University student Lucy (Emily Browning) agrees to work as a sleeper in Sleeping Beauty chamber, but find herself drawn into a mysterious hidden world of beauty and desire. A series of men visit Lucy but she is unable to remember what happened.



Promising concept let down by snoozy script

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: An intriguing psycho-sexual premise is let down by unrelentingly earnest storytelling and lack of suspense, in writer/director Julia Leigh’s debut feature Sleeping Beauty.

Cash-strapped student Lucy (Emily Browning) answers an ad in the uni paper for silver-service waitresses at a fancy private sex club. After Lucy proves her mettle, curt madam Clara (Rachel Blake) invites her to become one of the 'sleeping beauties’ who service the sexual peccadilloes of ageing clients. 'You will go to sleep; you will wake up. It will be as if those hours never existed," Clara explains, before adding the helpful OH&S disclaimer that there will be no penetration during these 'lost' hours.

Lucy (renamed 'Sara') consents and is duly visited upon by a series of men with all manner of kinks. She is driven to and from Clara’s manor house and paid handsomely for her time, but recalls nothing of the encounters afterwards. Eventually her natural curiosity is piqued by an unexplained blemish, a new-found fascination for sleeping commuters, and an ever-growing reluctance to sleep in the buff. Disturbed by her own changed behaviour, Lucy takes steps to discover what goes on during her potion-induced slumbers.

Australian author-turned-filmmaker Leigh has enjoyed her fair share of acclaim as a novelist so it's odd that she didn’t return to that medium to tell the story of the woman whose sleeping habits infiltrate her waking life and provoke a quite literal sexual awakening. A character whose inner life is so affected by events about which she has no memory is inherently intriguing, but Sleeping Beauty loses the plot pretty quickly.

Leigh’s screenplay struggles to stay interesting, and wants for the evocative passages that are an author’s pathway to character and narrative development. We have little sense of Lucy beyond a series of repetitive actions that on the surface, paint her as an aloof party girl with cashflow problems. But surface is all we have. The single relationship that is supposed to demonstrate Lucy’s 'true’ moments of connection – with a sickly friend she calls 'The Birdman’ – is ill-defined and stagey, and speaks to the screenplay’s central conflict between observation and insight, which is never reconciled satisfactorily.

It would be absurd for an author to write a book in a language they didn't understand, and the same principle applies to a screenwriter's comprehension of film language. The structure of Sleeping Beauty has no forward momentum, much less suspense; we're a fly on the wall to everything that goes on when Lucy/Sara sleeps, so most of the film's running time is spent waiting for her to find out what we already know. The expectations placed upon the audience are unearned, when we're supposed to be moved by the film's not-so-big 'reveal'.

The faults of the film are not Browning’s; she valiantly breathes life into a flimsy character, and deserves an accolade alone, for her unflinching endurance of a full-face 'sado-slobbering’ from Chris Haywood, who plays one of her nastier suitors. (As an aside, Browning’s role makes a curious bookend to her character in Sucker Punch, who also retreats to a dreamstate to escape the realities of sexual violence.)

Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography is artful and accomplished, and his is one of many contributions from seasoned film veterans that help the film rise above its script limitations. The rich woods and tapestries in Annie Beauchamp's production design also complement the alabaster bosoms and buttocks on display.

Jane Campion’s name is emblazoned on the film as a stamp of quality ('presented by') – a stamp that goes a long way in Cannes, where the lone female Palme d’Or winner continues to be feted by paparazzi and autograph hunters. Campion apparently mentored Leigh in the early and post stages of the film, and it’s easy to find the thematic link between the subject matter and Campion’s own explorations of female sexuality. I just can’t help but wish for the film Sleeping Beauty might have been, had Campion been at the helm.

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1 hour 44 min
In Cinemas 23 June 2011,
Thu, 11/24/2011 - 11