Friday, 13 May 2011
CANNES 2011 - Sleeping Beauty
Starring Emily Browning and Rachael Blake
By Blair Stewart
Few subjects raise the hackles of cinema-goers quite like a sexual power-play when the woman is the willing submissive, as Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty portrays. Arriving from a familiar but far crueler vein to Bunuel's Belle de Jour, young Lucy, as played by Emily Browning, is a striking, almost-pubescent college student with a hazy past of addiction and the trashy roots of the low-class family she's shucked. She's also a trendy bar-bathroom prostitute, earning her keep and dirty knees in the stalls when an offer arrives to join sex games for the contentment of elite men – Berlusconi himself just as well could show up as the master of ceremonies.
Lucy's job offer is that of a 'Sleeping Beauty', a doped-up, unresponsive play doll to be used by old-moneyed hands for any vice 'excluding penetration'. Leigh's film charts the spiral of Lucy's warped sense of curiosity and loathing through this degradation. This is neither a straight drama nor an erotic seduction piece, as the graphic scenes of Browning being pawned by sagging leathery men would corrupt most libidos. Having withheld Lucy's backstory (I'm certain every art-house film withholds backstory these days) and left us with just scraps of dialogue and small twitches of personality indicating why she's chosen her unique, necrophilic field, the work has the quality of an airless art gallery piece, or the political sex-bombs that Catherine Breillat has tossed in the past.
The unconscious transactions with Lucy's clientele have a creeping dread in them helped greatly by the hum of Ben Frost's ambient score. The film itself is pieced together with a minimum number of cuts, or as a fellow critic pointed out, the movie doesn't have scenes as much as vignettes. The framing is classical with brief but soft camera movements, which show us an influence from Michael Haneke's own twisted works.
It's an interesting time for Australian film. Since the productions of the Star Wars prequels and the Matrix films, Hollywood has largely left Oz's shores. Now the homemade independent/arts-funded films have stepped into the spotlight again. At the same time, the films themselves have looked to foreign influences in their themes, with Animal Kingdom sharing a kinship with Michael Mann's L.A. crime swagger, The Proposition an Outback mule-kick that could have been transported to the Rio Grande, and now Sleeping Beauty with the European austerity of ruling-class perversity.
Under the mentorship of Jane Campion, this is the film debut of praised author Julia Leigh. Given the choice of subject matter, attention will likely be focused on the grimy parts of her film. But her star, Emily Browning, a ballsy actress for such a petite woman, and Rachael Blake as Lucy's sangfroid Madam, are both sterling. The film is decisive and unpleasant but also undeniably skillful in its creation, reminding me of the glow of a Francis Bacon painting: both striking and terrible to look at. As you have already gleaned, the American Midwest is surely going to love this.