Beautiful Dreamer, Wake unto Me
Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s scripting and directing début, Sleeping Beauty, calls thematically on The Story of O, Crimes of Passion and Belle de Jour. While it shares effective camera composition with Just Jaeckin’s former and his Emmanuelle, however, it lacks the dark humor of the latter two, in the case of the Buñuel not only in sex per se but also in that Spaniard’s pervasive sexual and dinner-party irony.
The story blossomed from recurring nightmares where, dreaming that she was asleep, Leigh felt unknown people filming her. Such is really the ending of the hundred-ten-minute Cannes and Toronto selection, for the “sleeper’s” recording -- an overhead impossibility from the angle at which the device is set -- is only concluding seconds.
The “nightmare” is actually the uninvolved life of Lucy (Emily Browning), an existence among, but disconnected from, those around her. The petite ginger-to-redhead could as well be on another planet, or dead, in her non-relationships. At university she walks and sits alone, talks to no one; she thanks the exasperated blonde who fires her from a useless copying-and-collating job, at which she is non-responsive to her mother’s phone call; she gags but is stoic as a lab guinea pig who swallows, or is penetrated by, a tube bearing some prophylactic device; she shares a students’ house but connects with no one and is neither upset nor relieved when asked to vacate.
Her libido is equally vapid. Casually accepting offered cocaine, she lets coin flips determine whom she will sleep with and when, at a bar where she later obscenely propositions another man; busing café tables, she turns down a party with a coworker but sleeps with and leaves him as unconcernedly as with everything. The routine work is for money -- she is behind on rent -- though, following a windfall, she burns to ashes a $100 bill and indulges herself at the luxury Excelon hotel.
There is no reason for, or discernible emotion with, Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), an alcoholic to whom, sans sex, she returns for inane conversation and nature programs, for whom she sheds a tear and then proposes marriage; following his off-screen death, she proposes again, to a mutual friend apparently once her suitor.
The director-writer praises her star’s “sense of quiet and deliberate recklessness [while skirting] the major danger of self-pity.” Lucy is never forced but chooses to allow her choices to be made or alternatively volunteers. The film aims at a sense of objective watching -- thus, less than ten minutes’ music -- as voyeur, much as its heroine is less a participant in, than an observer of, her own experience.
A classified advert takes her to Thomas (Eden Falk) and ice-queen Clara’s (Rachael Blake) high-end escort service. Rechristened Sarah, in white underthings, Lucy becomes libation-pourer for formally dressed elderly guests served and serviced by other hired ladies in black S/M gear. Clara runs a tight ship with unbreakable rules and is impressed enough to chauffeur Lucy to her mansion and offer even better. A tea-ceremony potion will send her naked and asleep into bed with clients, who short of penetration may work their will in discreet safety.
On a bed in the severely symmetrical room, the whiter-shade-of-pale sleeping beauty resembles the drowned Ophelia of Pre-Raphaelite Millais. Over separate evenings, three of the unnamed elderly dinner guests (Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood, Hugh Keays-Byrne) pay for the opportunity, one of them twice. For the usual no-reason, Lucy wants to know what goes on while she is sedated, that is, a voyeur-vision of herself.
Some may see a commentary on the plight of women. Really, however, neither social nor financial pressure compels her to turn herself into, or allow herself to be turned into, an obscure object of desire. Such “radical passivity” is beyond the reach of empathy. Easier be moved by the three male clients, though shuddering at their purchasing soft-core kink. Incapable of coping with the inevitable loss of potency, they are truer to life than she, and even one’s straight non-dramatic narration of marital and parental failure does not diminish the accuracy of their not-uncommon decline.
(Released by IFC Films; not rated by MPAA.)