More tiresome than anything, Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s debut feature, “Sleeping Beauty,” concerns a self-abasing college student who doesn’t distinguish among her various dead-end jobs, one of which involves being drugged into a near-coma and manhandled by strangers. Leigh’s arty (not to be confused with artistic) treatment of such provocative subject matter derives from her own 2008 Black List-blessed screenplay, though the film’s frustratingly elliptical style and lack of character insight give it a distinctly first-draft feel. Racy subject and ample nudity should land this Jane Campion-endorsed production some decent fest exposure before rubbing ratings boards wrong around the world.
Whereas classical Hollywood cinema relies on the so-called “goal-oriented protagonist,” too many recent independent pics favor the opposite extreme, building laconic, momentum-free narratives around disaffected, near-catatonic young people. Leigh elevates this uncompelling personality type to existential levels, suggesting a character so haunted by death she hardly allows herself to feel anything in life. By extension, we hardly feel anything either, even as the film lapses into a series of ostensibly shocking physical violations.
“Sleeping Beauty” stars former child actress Emily Browning, making the common mistake of erring too far toward the outre when trying to prove she’s grown up enough to handle adult roles. Browning plays Lucy, who divides her time between brain-numbing jobs, including collating copies, cleaning tables at a restaurant and performing strange medical tests for money. The film opens with an unsettling scene from the latter gig, in which Lucy nearly gags as she swallows a long tube with a balloon at the end.
Technically, no matter what the job, someone is “using” Lucy — a subtext that semi-excuses her willingness to take a high-paying gig as a lingerie waitress at a kinky dinner party — though it’s telling that we are never more uncomfortable than during that first balloon-experiment scene. What is Lucy’s motive for accepting these arduous assignments? Is she a masochist? Does she need the money? (Coming home from the lingerie job, she burns some of her earnings. But why?)
In press notes provided to Cannes journalists, Leigh admits being inspired by two novellas, Yasunari Kawabata’s “The House of Sleeping Beauties” and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Memories of My Melancholy Whores,” which both feature brothels where men pay to lie down beside naked, narcotized young women. The classic fairy tale also factors, but only indirectly, as seen through certain visual details such as poison berries, Lucy’s doll-like appearance, etc.
But the question of why a girl would agree to such a job (answer: for money) isn’t nearly so interesting as what kind of men require such unconventional company. Just one scene in this perplexingly oblique feature addresses that mystery, as a sallow old customer launches into a soporific monologue about his ex-wife. If Lucy weren’t already out cold, she would be by the end of this man’s speech — just one of many scenes in which the most compelling detail is Annie Beauchamp’s production design.
Otherwise, “Sleeping Beauty” is maddeningly elliptical, depriving auds of virtually any of the details they need to understand, much less relate to the character. It’s fair to call Browning brave for taking on this role, but she’s too wooden and inexpressive here to invite us into Lucy’s interior space. Leigh supplies a few clues as to Lucy’s private life — a tense phone call with her mother, dreary visits to terminally ill friend Birdmann (Ewen Leslie) and a sexually charged nightclub encounter — but it’s not enough from which to extrapolate a meaningful character.
And so we find ourselves caught in a cycle of repetitive scenes, typically contained within a single, nearly static shot, as Leigh alternates vignettes among Lucy’s various jobs. Degradation and empowerment mix as the character sells access to her limp, cadaver-like body, calling to mind Browning’s recent turn in Zack Snyder’s fetish extravaganza “Sucker Punch.” But Leigh’s style is hyper-restrained by contrast, paring back music in favor of sound design that emphasizes the vacuousness of any given moment.
For those eager to tease out what Leigh’s conceptual exercise is about, the key no doubt lies in Lucy’s relation to her own mortality, with each descent into sleep resembling a death of sorts. So it comes as no surprise that witnessing real death is the only occurrence that provokes an emotional reaction from the character, ultimately bringing her screaming back into the world a reborn beauty.