DIRECTED BY: Julia Leigh
FEATURING: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie
PLOT: A quiet but reprobate student blindly contracts for unconventional assignments with an enigmatic madam to cater to the peculiar perversions of the ultra-rich.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Sleeping Beauty is not a sex-movie, but rather a tense, eerie multiple character study. The focused, unadorned manner in which it is shot, without a musical score, combines with the bizarre nature of its story to set an unusual mood which demands that we take it seriously. This atmosphere, and the choices the writer and director made in deciding what elements of its story to show us, to make Sleeping Beauty a weird and unusual viewing experience.
(Ignore the website and DVD jacket descriptions of this slick Aussie thriller; because US distributors don’t know how to present unusual efforts to a general audience, the synopses grossly mischaracterize this effort as some sort of racy potboiler. Sleeping Beauty is not a sex piece, even though Emily Browning looks just like a Real Doll sex doll in the trailer. Sleeping Beauty is not another Eyes Wide Shut. It is not designed to be racy or titillating. Nor is it a murky, confusing David Lynch-style movie, although fans of Lynch’s works will surely love it. Sleeping Beauty is in no way what I expected. It is unpredictable and although it declines to utilize a demented twist ending, I assure the reader he will never guess where it is heading).
For additional fun, be sure to look for an appearance by actor Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played the crazed “Toecutter” in 1979’s Mad Max.
COMMENTS: Wow! What a gem! I was hoping for something different and creepy from the trailer. I was not disappointed! Yet I was surprised. I was expecting something sci-fi or horror, about turning girls into living sex dolls. Sleeping Beauty turns out to be so much more unsettling, sophisticated and subtle. From its opening frames, the somber cinematography and unabashed, close-in concentration on its characters makes it clear that you are watching a serious, high-quality effort crafted by a writer and director who know exactly what to do. There’s a controlling sensation that your impressions are being skillfully manipulated by the filmmakers. They are.
Pert Lucy (Browning) studies and works hard. She diligently struggles to hold down two jobs and make ends meet. Despite her disciplined efforts to get ahead, Lucy is secretly morally bankrupt. She leads a double life. She is a quiet, proletariat schoolgirl with a middle-class bearing. Yet with little fanfare, she is capable of almost invisibly slipping into deplorable, high risk behavior.
When a low-key professional outfit sends a “talent scout” to size up her character, they recruit Lucy into an ethereal shadow-land of opulent decadence. Lucy is not fully informed as to the context of her odd obligations, however, and as she executes them, she is drawn toward an uncertain destiny in a perverse world.
We watch nervously, and finally succumb to a mild, muted horror as we behold what she does and what happens to her. With her madam (Blake) overseeing Lucy’s refinement in the social arts as well as painful beauty makeovers, Lucy undergoes a transformation, becoming an object of desire. Now she is a girl of elegance and aesthetics: a living doll.
Sleeping Beauty is an art film, but there is no gimmicky, independent film-style “artiness” in the production. It is an unconventional movie, but it lets its creepy, unusual story and unsettling characters, rather than its shooting style, provide the bizarreness.
Filmed like a serious drama, Sleeping Beauty is anything but. This film is carefully structured, put together in an orthodox manner, yet it is excruciatingly agitating to watch. Delicately macabre characters flicker in and out of quiet scenes which blur the boundaries between suspense, thriller, horror, and mystery.
In the end however, Sleeping Beauty is an exquisitely presented character study of refined unscrupulousness. One of the keys to its effectiveness is its subtlety. Exposition is sublimely furnished, in real time, via strategically revealing scenes of the most vicarious nature. Like coyly spying voyeurs, peering from behind sunglasses or from the corners of our eyes a restaurant booth or a few coach seats away, we behold the participants gently unveiling their most damning personality quirks.
Sleeping Beauty is a study of unexpected contrasts, of anachronisms and contradictions which lurk on the boundary of the dark side of life. They are the types of anomalies we tend gloss over, the verboten sort. Polite decorum dictates that it is not merely unpleasant, but too morbid and ghastly to acknowledge them.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…a fantastical mix of formal-dress sex parties, furious perversity and sly nods to the tropes of fairy tales and dreams… will likely frustrate some, but others will find it all a tantalizing enigma — impenetrable, as it were.”–Rafer Guzman, Newsday (contemporaneous)