Directed by: Julia Leigh
Premise: A cash strapped college student (Emily Browning) finds employment with a high class sex business in which she is anesthetized for the pleasure of clients.
What Works: Emily Browning plays the lead and she is better than this material. The actress puts herself out on a limb in a risky role and it’s too bad her efforts aren’t rewarded with a better film.
What Doesn’t: There is so much wrong with Sleeping Beauty that it is hard to know where to begin. The film is such an ill-conceived, under written, vacuous, and pretentious piece of nonsense that it is a stretch to even call this a motion picture. The key word here is motion: Sleeping Beauty doesn’t have any. Almost the entire film is composed of wide master shots, with many scenes consisting of a single cut, and the subjects within these shots barely move. The result is a cold, static, emotionless film that keeps the audience at a distance. Although that might be intentional, whatever thematic objectives the filmmakers have for themselves are unapparent, unclear, or too simplistic to justify. Sleeping Beauty has no plot to speak of, just a random series of vignettes that could be rearranged in any order. In many scenes nothing actually happens and what little does happen has no bearing on the preceding or following events. Viewing the film as a character study, which would allow for thinner plotting, doesn’t help because there aren’t any characters here. The distant style of the camera work keeps the characters at arm’s length, as though the filmmakers were desperately trying to prevent any connection between the subject and the audience. Trying to find another, possibly non-narrative, angle to evaluate Sleeping Beauty is equally fruitless. For non-narrative or anti-plot films to work they must be bold like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life or Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, juxtaposing imagery and sound to create a motion picture collage. This collision of sound and imagery substitutes for story and character and it is what makes a non-narrative film engaging. Sleeping Beauty does not do that. Instead, director and writer Julia Leigh has managed to make a film about sexual deviancy that is unbearably boring. The point of Sleeping Beauty is that the protagonist’s lifestyle gradually reduces her to an unconscious sex object for rich men. An attempt could be made to extrapolate this into some kind of feminist or anti-capitalist message, but Sleeping Beauty doesn’t deserve that level of consideration. What the film has to say about men, women, money, and sex isn’t original and even interesting and its handling of the topic is as clumsy and amateurish as its filmmaking. A picture like Sleeping Beauty makes a viewer appreciate the intelligence and filmmaking craft of pictures like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience, and even Pier Passolini’s Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, which more than likely influenced a number of scenes in this film.
Bottom Line: Sleeping Beauty views like something a first-year film student would make. The filmmakers reject form but do not replace traditional narrative or cinematic techniques with anything, they aspire to big ideas but don’t have the intellectual or creative means to articulate those ideas, and in the end everyone involved is utterly lost.
Episode: #371 (January 8, 2012)