Friday, April 5, 2013

Movie Review: Sleeping Beauty (2011 Drama)

Sleeping Beauty was an entry in the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. It was the directorial debut of the novelist Julia Leigh, who also wrote the screenplay for the dramatic movie.

poster of the movie Sleeping Beauty starring Emily Browning

Synopsis:
Lucy is a beautiful but aloof college student who has several odd jobs. She works at a coffee shop, as well as a human test subject at a research center and as an office clerk. She goes to a bar to drink, pick up sex partners, and occasionally do drugs. Every now and then she visits her good (and seemingly only) friend Birdman. Lucy responds to an advertisement and begins working for a mysterious employer named Clara who gives her a new name, Sarah. First, she serves food in a fancy dinner while wearing white lingerie, looking virginal and fragile compared to the other girls who are taller and black-haired and who wear black lingerie and extreme make-up. She then gets a new assignment from Clara: being drugged into a deep sleep while rich old men do what they want with her naked body.

Main Cast
Emily Browning - Lucy
Rachael Blake - Clara
Ewen Leslie - Birdmann
Peter Carroll - Man 1

Director: Julia Leigh

Trailer:

Video credit: hollywoodstreams / Youtube

Review:
Despite the name, Sleeping Beauty is not an adaptation of the popular fairy tale. This is definitely not for kids. It is bleak, dispassionate, and short on happily-ever-afters. The theme of the movie will remind some viewers of Eyes Wide Shut -- how rich men have access to an exclusive haven for their unusual kinky pleasures.

Lucy, our sleeping beauty, sleeps for money, oblivious to everything that is going on around her. However, when she's awake, things are pretty much the same. She is still apathetic to what happens to her body. She risks her health by becoming a guinea pig in exchange for cash, takes drugs when offered, and sleeps with random men. She has no friends other than Birdman, takes on menial jobs that don't require her to think, and attends college but does not really give a damn about her studies. She works for money but when a substantial amount is in her hands, she has no qualms burning a hundred dollar bill or blowing the money on a posh apartment she does not even appreciate. Basically, she sleepwalks through life, just goes through the motions, with her emotional vulnerability buried way deep down. Sleeping Beauty all the way. The only time we see her with genuine emotions is whenever she is with Birdman.

Lucy and Birdman suicide in Sleeping Beauty
Lucy and Birdman

Lucy is not the usual protagonist. In other films, the protagonist is active. He/she does things, makes things happen. Here, our protagonist is very passive. She is helpless and just lets things happen to her. She is not alone, though. It is a bit surreal how everyone in this movie is muted emotionally.

Earlier, I said that this movie is not an adaptation of the fairy tale we all know. Nevertheless, some details bring some fairy tales to mind. There is a princess but the princess in this story is not an innocent goody-two-shoes but an amoral emotionless automaton. Clara's secluded mansion out in the country seems to parallel the witch's gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel, with the temptation in the form of money instead of candy. A scene where Lucy drops some berries on the way to Clara's house seems like a nod to how Hansel and Gretel dropped breadcrumbs so they could find their way back home.

Lucy dropping berries on the way to Clara's mansion in Sleeping Beauty

Birdman, the closest thing to Prince Charming in this movie, is a screwed up guy who can't even save himself. When we first see him, he tells Lucy about the time he wanted to but failed to kiss her. In the fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty is awakened by the kiss of the prince. Birdman's failed kiss is a symbolic explanation why the princess remains asleep.

Compared to other films, Sleeping Beauty takes a bit of analysis. Not every detail is spelled out. Birdman, for example, is the most important part of Lucy's life but we don't really know who he is and what is up with him. He and Lucy seem to be two loner types who are good, long-time friends. They seem to be attracted to each other but their level of intimacy is deep yet not sexual. Hints point to Birdman being a depressed alcoholic with health problems but the film does not make this clear since he seems to be neat, alert, and healthy every time we see him.

Many films that feature nude scenes have gratuitous nudity, oftentimes accompanied by sex scenes. You know how many actresses who bare their skin say during interviews that they did it because the role called for it, then you see the film and think that the nude scenes do not add anything to the plot or to the development of the characters? Here, it's different. You will see a lot of nudity. Lots of nudity but no sex. The aim is not to titillate the audience but to tell the story. A good part of the film is with Emily Browning in her naked glory. In some scenes, other women and some old men are naked too. The nudity is tasteful though, nothing obscene or pornographic.

Clara and Man 1 talk while Lucy sleeps in Sleeping Beauty
Clara and Man 1 talk while Lucy sleeps

The rich clients who pay to be with the naked, unconscious Lucy are explicitly forbidden to penetrate her. The three old men shown in the film have no problem with that limitation. Some viewers find this premise ludicrous -- why the hell would anyone pay big bucks to be with a naked girl that they cannot have sex with? What's the point, they say. Well, in this movie, nudity goes hand in hand with intimacy but not everyone sees intimacy and nudity as sexual things.

Birdman asks Lucy to remove her shirt before holding on to her warm body and sharing the most intimate experience he can share with anyone. For the old men, the intimacy is with sharing uncomfortable truths so personal that they can only do so with someone who cannot judge them (because she is unconscious). They pay because with Lucy, they do not have to feel guilt and shame. No one can see them act out their fantasies. They can still pretend that they are full of life, powerful, and strong, even though they know that in reality, they are old, impotent, and weakened by age.

In the end, Lucy is ravaged by anguish when she realizes that she has inadvertently sold her intimacy with Birdman to another guy. She wails like a newborn child. Perhaps this is a rebirth and she is finally awake and ready to live?

This film is a good example of a "love it or hate it" film. Some people who have seen it think it's a boring, pretentious film with a charmless protagonist. Others (including me) see it as a deep and unique work of art. The acting of the cast is superb, from the major stars to the smaller ones. Emily Browning shines in the lead role. Her character is not likable but definitely beautifully played.


Rating: 7/10


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