'Sleeping Beauty' Preaches From Down Under
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
No less a filmmaker than Jane Campion gave her seal of approval to "Sleeping Beauty," Australian novelist Julia Leigh's writing-directing debut. It's a mystery how the director of "In the Cut" and "The Portrait of a Lady," uncompromising explorations of female psychosexuality, could find value in this dull preachment about the objectification of women -- or more accurately, portrait of a disaffected droop. "Sleeping Beauty" never stops nagging you to take it Seriously as brave and radical Art. Truth be told, Leigh's shocked discovery that the services of women are bought and sold every day in many different venues is yesterday's news, and her notion of how to let us in on the awful truth is often stylistically silly.
A pretty nymphet (Emily Browning, from "Sucker Punch") divides her time among boring office work, waiting tables, playing laboratory guinea pig, dropping in on college and picking up idiot leches in bars. At home, her sister's hostile boyfriend rides her for late rent. Lucy faces what comes (in every sense) with the flattest of affects.
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Occasionally, zombie-girl drops in on a gaunt melancholiac named Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), who perks her up a bit. Exchanging snarky, self-consciously formal pleasantries, the two semaphore that their old-soul rapport is way past mundane conversation. They're too far gone in angst to be for real. Still, Birdmann seems to be the only person who matters to Lucy. Apparently these sucker-punched comrades share some painful history, but what it is remains permanently under wraps.
After meticulous vetting -- of her anatomy and lifestyle -- Lucy is hired on by Clara (Rachael Blake), a mysterious and exacting madam with a voice so precise and cultured she might be automated. She, too, telegraphs a haunted past, doubtlessly meant to be intriguing. But nothing comes of that, nor of her bond with one of Lucy's clients, an elderly gent who shares a long, bewildering anecdote about his wife. Perhaps he's her Birdmann.
Lucy's groomed for "silver service" -- dressing up in skimpy lingerie and high heels to serve tuxedoed geezers dinner and wine. (A couple ladies spend the evening as fireplace furniture, curvaceous andirons.) Most of the silent help wear black bondage thongs and halters, while Lucy teeters about in virginal white lingerie and garters. After brandy, the ladies in black pleasure the coots while Lucy goes home untouched. Unless you possess remarkable restraint, this outtake from "The Story of O" may get the giggles going.
From where I sit, Leigh's chilly exercise in psychosexual stasis is a bore and a turn-off. Of course, that may be exactly what she's aiming for: when the bodies of women become commodities -- furniture and objets d'art -- for the delectation of Methuselahs and sexual gourmands, genuine sensuality goes cold and dead. There may be method to the film's relentless buzz-kill, but we're still left standing in a cold shower.
Lucy remains literally an object, a comatose thing, antithesis of Catherine Breillat's feisty dream-quester in the French helmer's recent deconstruction of the "Sleeping Beauty" fairy tale. In her stints as sleeping beauty, tucked into a sumptuous bed at her madam's luxe retreat, the deeply drugged Lucy slumbers like some peach-hued Botticelli angel in the flesh. When not unconscious, she maintains a pose of ironic diffidence that isn't so much a lost soul's armor against pain or humiliation as just the expression she wears. She's half-sister to the lobotomized heroine of "Sucker Punch," but that lost soul at least gets to escape from a brothel world and enjoy some kick-ass action before the hammer comes down. (Zack Snyder's much-maligned feminist action-fantasy hits home more often than Leigh's carefully calibrated still-life.)
When Lucy does break down -- in the wake of several suicides -- her sudden tears possess only face value. It's impossible to tell why these particular events have awakened feelings of empathy. Not so much enigma as blank slate, Leigh's girl-for-hire remains impervious to intimacy, with us or anyone else. Her contacts with other human beings are so sketchy, literally skin deep, their significance can only be guessed at. Though every not-so-charming "prince" writes his dreams and nightmares on her perfect flesh, none wakes her out of emotional stupor.
The sight of anonymous bare breasts and buttocks and Lucy's lovely, corpselike nudity will provide some with an automatic turn-on. But, like the sad, silly orgy in "Eyes Wide Shut," erotic "Sleeping Beauty" is not. Clara assures her kinky upscale clients that "no one can see you ... there is no shame here." Truth is, there's really nothing, shameful or otherwise, to see in this pretentious and empty fairy tale.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.