So painfully deliberate, so studied and self-possessed that you can practically hear the life being sucked out of the frame.
But where those films suggested profound depths of meaning, metaphor and symbolism beneath their icy veneers, scratch the surface of Sleeping Beauty and all that’s left are ugly marks.
Emily Browning offers a gutsy performance as Lucy, a troubled, impoverished but austerely beautiful university student who supports herself with shifts as a waitress but supplements that income volunteering for medical research.
We first meet her in an almost unwatchably realistic scene in which Lucy has a long rubber tube inserted down her throat to a soundtrack of guttural retching. But it’s another kind of invasive procedure entirely that will become the focus of the film.
Hired by a kind of upmarket escort agency for rich pervs, Lucy will spend her nights drugged and unconscious, a literal sleeping beauty fawned over by a succession of old men. Unknowingly violated (though never penetrated), Lucy is the object not so much of their lust, but their dejection, depression and despair. That pristine, alabaster body is the theatre of their humiliation, not hers.
No doubt, Sleeping Beauty is a handsomely staged production. In fact, it’s so painfully deliberate, so studied and self-possessed that you can practically hear the life being sucked out of the frame. Leigh’s penchant for fade-outs, slow zooms and flat, almost two-dimensional imagery results in a fatally arrhythmic experience that’s long-winded, self-conscious and pseudo-profound. This is a film prat-falling over itself to be taken seriously.
All of which leaves Emily Browning high and dry. There are an awful lot of 22-year-old actresses making waves in cinema right now, but how many of them have got the courage to go for broke in an Australian art film that strips them down both physically and emotionally? She’s thrown herself body and soul at this project only to be left ill-served by her chief ally. This is a vision of innocence corrupted, indeed.
Granted the honour of opening the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
An airless, lifeless experience despite the best efforts and intentions of its lead.
Not one to place among the classic studies of sexual politics.