The Sleeping Beauty figure, as featured in the most popular versions of the classic fairy tale, is the archetypal passive heroine. Falling into the death-like state of a long, deep sleep, she lacks all agency and simple lies still waiting until she wakes. Julia Leigh’s début film Sleeping Beauty can be regarded to some extent as being a subversion of the way popular culture frequently views women as passive or helpless. However, to simply regard it as a revisionist modern fairy tale is far too narrow and doesn’t take into the account the multiple layers of meaning that the film operates on. Within the film is an examination of objectification, what constitutes as a sexualised image and the nature of sexual aggression. Notions about sex and death are turned on their heads and the audiences are routinely confronted with ideas and images that are both ambiguous and unsettling.
The Sleeping Beauty of the film is Lucy (Emily Browning), a university student who works several jobs to pay the rent. Lucy is a complete enigma and apart from basic financial needs, what motivates her is a mystery. Her attitude towards sex appears to be one of complete indifference and casualness; she decides whom to have sex with by flipping a coin and tells one character, with almost fully disguised contempt, ‘My vagina is not a temple’. She’s not submissive; she just seemingly goes with the flow without any hang-ups. This attitude leads her to first accepting a job wearing lingerie while serving wealthy elderly dinner guests, and later taking a job where she is consensually drugged to sleep and left alone with various older men.
Lucy’s ambivalence towards sex is also expressed in the film’s refusal to sexualise any of what is on screen. No actual acts of sex are shown and the extensive shots of naked or half naked characters are cold and detached, sometimes bordering on the absurd in the case of the dinner parties with the lingerie-wearing waiting staff. A common critique of pornography, and the appropriation of the pornographic aesthetic in mainstream culture, is that images that have adopted such endlessly replicated and industrialised representations of sexuality are in fact drained of any actual eroticism or sensuality. By visually and narratively presenting various situations where the expression of sexuality is artificial, Sleeping Beauty appropriates this idea and prevents the viewer from engaging with the sexual content in any emotional way. The dominant gaze of heterosexual men is thus exposed and therefore denied, allowing the film to delve deeper into ideas of intimacy and violation.
The men who pay to be in the room with Lucy while she is drugged asleep are repeatedly told that no penetration is allowed, further fitting in with the film’s absence of what is typically regarded as sex. In fact, the only time we actually see Lucy penetrated is in the opening, and then one subsequent scene later, when she swallows a balloon attached to a long tube for a medical experiment she’s being paid to take part in. Using the sterile environment of a laboratory for this visceral and unconventionally invasive, yet consensual, violation of her body sets up the film perfectly. The oral penetration symbolism also mirrors the fact that she must drink the deep-sleep drug plus there is the scene where she is instructed to colour her lips the same colour as her labia.
The men are repeatedly told that they are safe and free from judgement while in the room with sleeping Lucy, perhaps to parody the often defensive claim that men are the most vulnerable in a sexualised environment because their urges supposedly render them so helpless. Once in the room, one man displays a sort of perverse tenderness, another lets out a stream of spoken misogynist rage while another carries and throws her around like a rag doll. The acts are non-sexual but each in their own way are expressions of something dark within some men that make them want to dominate women. With Lucy drugged asleep, to awaken with no memory of what had happened, they are able to yield power over her. In this way Sleeping Beauty expressed the nature of sexual violence as being something that comes from a cruel desire to wield power and degrade, with sexuality having nothing to do with it.
Part of Lucy’s detachment from sex is the notion that she instead finds intimacy in death, symbolically through the deep sleeps or otherwise. One of the few moments where she displays true emotion is associated with a moment of death, making any non-consensual encounters with death the greatest violation she can experience. Like Sleeping Beauty and many other fairy tale female protagonists, Lucy is also ‘punished’ for her curiosity – a curiosity that involves looking at something she is not supposed to see, in other words, trying to take the power of the gaze away from men.
While psychoanalysis and feminist film theory facilitate so many entry points into understanding what is at play within Sleeping Beauty, it mustn’t be overlooked that it is essentially a sensory film that defies simple explanation or categorisation. Leigh has an extremely well tuned sense of visual storytelling and has clearly worked very closely with cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson and production designer Annie Beauchamp in the construction of each scene. Soft light and bold primary colours give many of the scenes the almost stylised appearance of a moving painting, at times evoking the films of Stanely Kubrick, David Lynch and Peter Greenaway. The immersive experience of watching this film is further aided by the meticulous and minimalist sound design by Sam Petty. Finally, Browning has been perfectly cast as Lucy. Not only do her young girl looks confront the way we perceive her onscreen in such a role (rather than titillate), but she delivers a highly measured and controlled performance that matches the dreamlike tone of the film.
On face value Sleeping Beauty may appear to be simply an arty exercise in film style and as a result will no doubt perplex and frustrate some audiences, particular those expecting something more erotic or blatantly emotionally charged. However, like Lucy it contains something dark, complex, mysterious and, indeed, beautiful deep down below the surface.