I caught the Julia Leigh film “Sleepy Beauty” on Netflix the other night, and, if it weren’t for the final scene, I would have forgotten it as a sexually exploitative mediocre-at-best art-house film. Unfortunately, thanks to the penultimate scene in the film, what “Sleeping Beauty” is, is in fact, a near-miss at a truly excellent feminist psycho-drama. Sadly, no matter how affective one good apple of a scene can be, it’s not enough to save the rotten barrel. And because of that, instead of simply sighing and mumbling, “Well, that was a wasted two hours,” I’ve not been able to stop thinking about what this film could have been.
Needless to say, this critique/review is going to contain spoilers. If you’ve not seen this film. . . well, actually, I’m not sure I can suggest doing so. As I’ve indicated, and I’m going to go into, it’s not a good film. It’s certainly not something you want to watch for the entertainment value–it’s not entertaining. Well, unless you’re someone who watches, say, Lars von Trier films for entertainment. *scowl* Poorly made Lars von Trier films as that. So, if you’ve not seen it, and would still like to read this article, I won’t stop you.
That said, I really don’t feel like summarizing the film any any great detail for people who’ve not seen it. In fact, I would suggest reading the Wikipedia summary of the film before continuing. But, for clarity’s sake, here’s the broad brush: A college student played by Emily Browning appears to go to class, work two normal jobs, prostitute at night as a free agent, and subject herself to medical/scientific testing for extra cash. How she finds time to do all this, well, let’s just say time management isn’t the only fanciful aspect of this film. In the process, she gets hired on to be a half-naked “silver service” server and objet d’art a la Story of O for a private dinner party club. Evidently, because of her unique beauty (and, I assume, preternatural lack of emotion or flappability) she’s contracted to be put to sleep (literally, not figuratively) naked in bed so that high-paying men can do. . . whatever, to her while she remains comatose.
Yeah, sounds just lovely, huh. The film could have, and I think, though I’ve not read any articles about the writer/director, sincerely tried to use this rather unusual, twisted adult fairy tale of a plot, to make a feminist indictment of the way in which women are exploited and used by the patriarchal society. And, it comes close. At least, the elements are there, ready to be activated into a stunning and unforgettable critique of society. But the production fails to activate the materials. The catalyst was never set off thanks to a script that, at its best, rises to the level of tedious, directing that aspires to be as good as tedious, and acting that tries really, really hard but is hamstrung by the script and directing.
Before I get back to why the feminist structure was there, I want to touch on the acting. Emily Browning does an admirable job portraying a young women who, on the surface, is easily dismissed as “self-destructive.” Certainly anyone who lives the life her character does can’t be anything else but, can she? But no, it’s deeper than that, and Browning shows it. Her character actually doesn’t appear to care enough about her own being to be something as active as self-destructive. Nihilistic is perhaps the best description.
Actually, not long ago I discovered a mental-behavior disorder known as depersonalization disorder. Essentially, someone with this condition generally feels disconnected, literally and figuratively, from their body. They tend to go through life not as a participant in their own actions but rather as an observer–a detached viewer of a person they don’t identify as themselves. Browning’s character is never described in the film as having any kind of mental or behavioral disorder, and the somewhat surreal atmosphere and circumstances of the film tend to preclude being able to diagnose any of its characters with any real-world DSM-IV conditions. They simply are what they are without the benefit of medical classification. But, if I had to label her, I would say she depicts someone with depersonalization disorder to a tee. This analysis becomes very important in discussing why the ending of the film is as powerful as it is and nearly redeems this movie.
Browning’s character goes from job to class to job to drug to sexual exploit entirely unaffected. When a clinical scientist is running a tube down her throat for a test, when she’s making endless copies at an office job, when she’s lying to her alcoholic mother and gives her her fake(?) credit card number, when she’s negotiating for sex with a client, when she’s being examined for marks before joining the dinner party service team, nothing breaks through her detachment. She performs every task and duty equally submissive, equally detached. Until the end, there are only four times in the film she shows any emotion. One is, unbelievably, some semblance of happiness in the company of what the viewer can only assume (as no direct explanation is ever given) a long-time friend who appears to be a shut-in and either a recovering alcoholic or is chronically ill. Another is when said friend informs her that he can’t go on any longer and implies he’s either “letting go” or will commit suicide, she shows weakness, sadness, and even a bit of fear. Then, when she discovers him near-death from what appears to be drug-induced suicide, she crumbles and cries, allowing herself to be cuddled by him as he dies in bed. And finally, at the funeral when she demands of a new character and evidently long-ago friend of the both of them, to marry her (jokingly? sincerely? both?) and he angrily rejects her, she herself displays barely-repressed anger.
It’s these four, only four, instances of sincere humanity that peak (yes, “peak”) out from an otherwise Kansas-flat vista of stoicism, that allows the viewer, just barely, to feel some amount of empathy, or at least sympathy, for her character. Just enough to let us keep going along this weird and twisted journey she’s on, to see where it ends. The 95-percent unaffected behavior from her is necessary for the socio-political purpose of the film, and to make the ending as effective as it is, while the four-instance emotional cracks allow us to believe the ending is possible while, also, not getting so disgusted by her alien behavior that we have to give up on her before journey’s end.
No, all blame for the failures of this film rests at the feet of the director. For example, just what style was she going for? Kubrickian? David Lynchian? Catherine Breillat-ian? von Trierian? It certainly doesn’t establish a style of its own, despite the pastiche, as the styles of the afore-mentioned auteur directors are employed with heavy-handed obviousness and no cohesiveness. Which is made worse by the fact that the viewer can’t tell what directorial choices are in fact choices or mistakes or carelessness.
For example, in one particular scene, Browning’s character, Lucy, steps out from a car having arrived at where she would be sleeping, and stops in the driveway to stare at something. The camera slowly pans (Lynchian-style) across the building to where there’s another car that two men help a drugged young woman into. The camera slowly pans back to show Lucy vaguely curious. The problem here is that once the camera reveals the men, woman, and car, it’s obvious that they wouldn’t have been visible to Lucy at the point we see her stare before the camera makes its languorous trip. So, is this intentional? Is this just lazy direction?
In another scene, Lucy is in an electronics store to buy a concealable camera. Her image is displayed on various televisions from what should be a camera on display. However, it’s obvious here that her televised image was pre-recorded and Browning is having to act to match the dialog and movements of herself in the screens. This is terribly perplexing; there’s no logical, practical reason why the production couldn’t have used a real-time digital camera patched into televisions the same way thousands of department stores do daily. Just replace whatever they had feeding the screens with her pre-recorded action with a live camera. The fact they used a recording had to have been a conscious and intentional decision, but why? For all the oddness of the film, it’s not so odd that this display of a fracture in reality, I can only assume, is justified and appropriate.
And, not to mention, the scene that was surely the worst directed scene I have ever seen since an Ed Wood movie. The scene in which Lucy has her interview with the hostess/madam, Clara, and her assistant(?). The entire, single-cut scene, felt like the director said, “Action!”
And the actors replied, “Uhm, you never gave us lines or blocking for this scene.”
“Well. . . oh! We’ll do this scene. . . minimalist natural realism! Yeah, that’s the ticket. Now. . . action!”
“Er, we still don’t really know what to do here.”
It was awkward and uncomfortable watching it, and I sat through “Jurassic Park 2.” I almost gave up. I thought to myself, “I don’t care how artsy and film-festivally this is, this is terrible.” But, I try never to stop watching a film so that, if nothing else, I can say, “Yeah, actually, I saw that. Let me tell you how bad it was!” (And yet, I still refuse to see “Twilight.”)
This brings us, finally, to the saving grace that made me throw up my hands in cry, “This! Why couldn’t the previous 97 minutes have lived up to this?!” Here’s what happens:
So, she rises to the position of being a beautiful rag doll in a lavish bed. We see her on three different occasions get molested in her drugged state by three wealthy men she never meets. The first one is, in a manner of speaking, the more gentle one who seems to want to do no more than appreciate her appearance. (Still misogynistic, and I’ll go into that later.) But he’s a sad, broken rich man. He comes back at the end of the film to allow himself to be drugged to death by the madam/hostess and die in bed next to the naked and sleeping Lucy.
Cut to later when Clara returns and checks to make sure he is indeed dead. Clara sits on the bed, perhaps sad. She attempts to waken Lucy and discovers that (thanks to her still having last night’s recreational drugs in her system) Lucy won’t awaken. She’s forced to give her near-panicking mouth-to-mouth. Lucy wakes with a shock and a start. She looks around, seemingly for the first time, sees the man dead next to her, and screams. And screams. Not the scream of panic, nor of shock, nor anger, but of pure, brutal existential crisis. She screams in spiritual terror like a newborn pulled violently into a new world, but also with all the awareness of the terror of what life holds.
Every ounce of emotion that Lucy should have felt throughout the film, throughout her whole life perhaps, comes out in this instantaneous realization of who she is, what she is, what she’s done. The dam has burst, the walls have collapse, the ground has given way, every masonic artifice that is used to hold in the unbridled force of being, is gone. All is left is pure pathos. And Emily Browning performs this painful and terrible moment with complete and utter sincerity. We, the voyeur who has watched her emotionless debasement for an hour and a half is given a view of the cost and are then swept away, never to know if this re-birth leads to her new life, or ultimate destruction where what was before an existence not-lived or examined, becomes active self-destruction as she realizes she can’t live with her new awareness. The scene cuts to video of what Lucy had secretly recorded of that night using her covertly placed camera–her asleep, and him presumably dead, in the same position he was found in. Then, credits.
That catharsis gives meaning and purpose to the previous hour and a half of detached ennui. And the previous small cracks give the catharsis sincerity. Sadly, however, the scene can’t be seen entirely as Lucy’s horror and catharsis and one can’t help but see, perhaps, some of Browning herself in the emotional release, due to the fact that the awkward and amateurish direction throughout the film gives the impression that the actress is being exploited and abused nearly as much as the character. While the presumed intent of the film was to critique misogyny, the failure of the message makes the actress as much a victim as the character. Perhaps not as intentionally as von Trier and his sadistic debasement and abuse of women (the actresses themselves in what seems like the director’s hate for women) in what is truly misogynistic film-making, but the end result is the same.
So, because of the embarrassingly awful and never-quite-sure-what’s-intentional directing, the potentially powerful message gets turned into exactly what the film was trying to subvert–a misogynistic sexual exploitation piece. Lucy is supposed to represent the female, made to be submissive and without voice in the patriarchy. She’s expected to be all things: the good daughter, the student, the hard worker, the sex slave, the piece of art on a pedestal, the caretaker of the weak and sick . . . . And she’s expected to do it without complaint. Without even her active participation in those roles. She’s simply . . . expected.
Clara, the hostess/madam, should have been an interesting character. She is what Lucy would have become in fifteen or twenty years. Clara appears in the film nearly as unaffected, as detached as Lucy. She is, in fact, representative of the self-victimization of the woman. She facilitates her own subjugation and the subjugation of women because that is, again, what is expected. It’s what she knows. It’s auto-pilot. Throughout the history of the fight for gender equality, some of the fiercest opponents have been other women who resent the idea that they should question the world, the role, they know and have been convinced is the right and proper “place” for a woman in this “man’s world.” Without question, without a raised eyebrow, Clara perpetuates the abuse to the next generation. Lucy has woken up, and has avoided that fate–though we don’t know if for good or ill.
The three men who visit the comatose Lucy represent three different ways in which society sets men up to subjugate women. The second man to use her is overtly abusive, raining verbal abuse upon her and even burning her with a cigarette. There is no subtlety with him, he is hate. Interestingly, before his visit, Clara had but one rule for the men: no penetration. She had even told Lucy, in these words, that her vagina is a temple (which Lucy dismissed). This points out the patriarchy’s obsession with “purity,” or virginity, despite the complete disdain it has for all other aspects of the female. “Virginity” is code for “property.” Only the man who owns the girl can despoil her in such a way, while society has historically had no similar attachment of “purity” toward men. (At least, not until the rise of equal rights when, faced with the hypocrisy, instead of giving up on the obsession with female virginity, Judeo-Christian culture started giving lip service toward the value of male virginity. Though, in cultural practice, this is empty sentiment.) This is evident in the rise of the rather creepy “purity balls” which have no male version.
In any case, Clara’s one rule was to maintain the patriarchal obsession with purity in hypocritical counterpoint to the range of abuse otherwise allowed, until the second man’s visit. Clara then adds a second rule: no marks. After all, we are still talking about property.
The third man is a large, bull of a man who is surreal David Lynch style, performs a scene of trying to pick up the limp, naked Lucy, carry her around and replace her on the bed, only to have her continue to slide off the edge despite his efforts. It really is almost as absurd as it sounds. This man is the hypocrisy of chivalry. Chivalry (as we know it today, not its medieval origin) is a false theatrical replacement for actual respect. If you want to open a door for someone, protect someone’s honor, treat someone with deference, you do it out of respect for that person as a human. While the patriarchy exploits and abuses the female, it hides behind this play-act of being a protector and guardian of virtue of “the weaker sex.” It’s patronizing and demeaning and borne, once again, out of protection of property, as opposed to out of human respect as equals. The third man tries to be the strong, dominant hero, and because he sees her as the other men do, an object, property, he ultimately fails.
Back to the first (and final) man, he is the subtle symbol of patriarchal exploitation. His first visit, all he does is look, admire, touch, with what appears to be both longing and adoration. On the surface, this seems harmless enough. But remember, he’s looking and touching and admiring a woman who has been made to order to be unresponsive, unaware, without voice–still, just an object. His tender touch is no different and has no more care than a stroke of a statue or a vase. In the western patriarchy, women are objectified and presented on magazines, TV, billboards, as commodity. To be consumed. The image of the woman is sexualized, made glamorous and seemingly untouchable, but consumed all the same. This seemingly kindly, older man, is not being kind to Lucy, he doesn’t even know or even see a “Lucy.” He sees an object, something he’s paid to consume.
And in the end, with his second visit, he uses her in a most obscene way, by making her without her consent, see him off into death. We may feel sympathy for him because he’s alone and broken and desires to leave the world next to something beautiful, but this does not absolve him of the exploitation he commits, of the person to which he is incapable of apologizing to. And it perverts the earlier scene where she voluntarily gives comfort to her friend as he, in counterpoint, also leaves this world, broken. That scene (though directed awkwardly), is heartbreaking; the scene with the rich old man, is perverse. This realization is certainly part of what instigates Lucy’s ultimate breakdown.
The indictment is there, the statements are there, the critique is there–but what ultimately comes out of this film is clumsy and . . . whatever German word means: ironically sexual without any actual sexuality.
Oh, and a final word on the marketing of this film. From what I’ve seen, it’s been marketed as an erotic drama, even romantic is some strange way. For the DVD release, the studio even did a promotion where you could win a chance at a prize for sleeping in public in their display bed. Seriously. Think about what this movie is about, and then consider this “you too could be Sleeping Beauty for money!” promotion. Reminds me of how “Hunger Games” was promoted. “You too can participate in the Hunger Games!” kind of hoopla to the books and fast food tie-ins and stuff. Think about that. “You too can participate in a horrific and evil competition where you kill other children in grisly ways and try to survive! Buy our stuff.”
I hate marketers.
Nicely done review. I just finished watching “Sleeping Beauty” today and this helps solidify several aspects of the film for me. I wasn’t as disturbed by the clunky directing as you (but then, I watched — in its entirety — “Two-Headed Shark Attack”). I did find the final scene affecting, especially when I realized that, yes, the title has more to it than just a literal reference to her sleeping; that, in fact, she’s been asleep through the whole movie and only wakes up when Clara ‘kisses’ her with mouth-to-mouth. When she touches the dead man and realizes his death, this breaks through the barriers she’s erected and she finally (in my interpretation) feels the pain that the loss of her friend has caused. We get a hint at that loss earlier, both when she’s crying in the arms of her dying friend, and when she tries to replace the Bird Man with the ex-lover, repeating the marriage request that the Bird Man so easily acquiesced to.
Does that realization of loss and the accompanying pain break her, or cause her to live? Unknown.