Thursday, 3 November 2011

FILM REVIEW: Sleeping Beauty

Apologies for the late review for this film – I saw it in the midst of the London Film Festival and whilst it was by no means forgettable, it seems to have fallen through the culturemouse cracks somewhat, so let’s put that right.

I’d been looking forward to Sleeping Beauty for ages, and I was so lucky to have been in London the weekend it was released in the UK otherwise I wouldn’t have seen it (it’s still not come to Leeds). I’m a big fan of the twisted fairytale or anything verging into Angela Carter territory, so as soon as I saw this trailer I knew it was on the delicious side of wrong. Plus I kind of love Emily Browning: she has that devilish beguiling side of her which is so powerful in someone so young, and I don’t care what anyone says, I loved Sucker Punch and was perfectly happy to see her in another exploitation movie – though a bit artier this time. And by the end of the film I would have a whole new respect for her – she pushes brave to a completely new level.

Lucy (Browning) is a University student somewhere in Australia, struggling to pay her tuition fees and rent. She is juggling several jobs including waitressing, medical experiments (the first scene of the film shows her having a tube inserted down her throat into her lungs – I defy you to hold your focus throughout her gagging and not look away), photocopying in an office, and she also spends a lot of her time looking after her alcoholic male friend, bringing him vodka to swill his cornflakes in. Her flatmates hate her as she’s always avoiding her payments and is never around, and communicate their anger to her through notes posted about the house. The only indication of any family is her mother, who rings her up at her office job one day desperate for Lucy’s credit card number which she reels off in superb pretence. It’s obvious her mother is a dependent and an addict of some sort, and so therefore Lucy is on her own in the world, and desperate to be independent and get an education. So she takes up another job offer – silver service in her lingerie for an exclusive club – more like a password protected cult – for elderly men. But this is not the extreme for Lucy. As ‘shifts’ run dry, she begs her employer Clara (Rachael Blake) – a mother figure to the working girls - to give her more work, and accepts the role of a ‘sleeping beauty’. She is taken anonymously to a house in the countryside, where she is drugged and put into a bed. Whilst asleep, Clara arranges for a man to come into the room and he can do whatever he likes to the sleeping girl “without penetration”. Lucy is grateful for the money, but becomes more obsessed with what happens to her whilst she is sedated. She buys a spy camera and plants it in the room before she falls asleep and is able to see the last encounter she has as the sleeping beauty.

There is absolutely no music used in this film – I noticed this about halfway through, when the atmosphere seems to clot and the uneasiness becomes so intense. It heightens the claustrophobia of the film, the hush in the cinema screen I was in was like a thick fog! A completely absorbing watch – whether you’re watching Lucy’s first interview for the job, serving brandy to the elderly gentlemen in her underwear after their meal, or predominantly, watching her sleep and the male ‘guest’ prowl around examining her wondering what on earth they’re going to do. It’s a difficult watch but not impossible – it’s beautifully shot, with the pace the beat of a steady heart and the shocking and bold situations eking an elegance, even if it’s tinged with delinquency.

Emily Browning is so brave. I kept thinking perhaps she was actually sedated through some of those scenes, because how could she keep her composure and her professionalism when they’re dragging her naked across the floor, burning her with cigarettes, treating her like a whore?! For someone so young, she has made some telling choices so early on in her career that will stand her out from the crowd. She is haunting, particularly in the final moments. Apparently Mia Wasikowska had been signed up to this film before she left to do Jane Eyre – uhh, thank God she did! It would have been a completely different film (and I would have been at odds as to whether to watch it or not with her in it).

As with the music, there is also little dialogue in the film, and our idea of Lucy is shaped through her actions and habits. There are a lot of things deliberately left unexplored: who is this alcoholic friend of hers? Who are the people at his funeral, and the young man who reacts so violently to her flippant proposal? Why does she burn the money she earns in one scene when she apparently so badly needs it to pay her way? There has been a lot of interpretation over the ending as well: just before her final stint as the sleeping beauty she goes out with some friends and pops some pills. Clara, before administrating the sleeping drug, asks her if she is clean and healthy and she lies and tells her yes. Did she know the pills would react with the drug, and therefore was she planning to kill herself, and so when Clara wakes her up she screams out of despair that she's still alive? Or, as she planted the spy camera, is it perfectly obvious she didn’t intend to kill herself and her screams are more to do with the man in the bed with her? It’s interesting as I never considered the former, but I’ll bear it in mind on the next watch. I’m also going to keep in mind director Julia Leigh – I can see her at the forefront of some exciting projects in the future.

As a fault, Sleeping Beauty is probably a little bit too remote and detached to properly move the audience – Lucy is not grounded enough as a character, she’s almost ethereal. But it’s uncompromising and achingly engrossing, and will affect you in different ways. A fearless film and one that deserves a watch, though you may have to wait for the DVD now.

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