Frustratingly opaque, Australian novelist-turned-filmmaker Julia Leigh’s debut feature opens with an unforgettable image: A young woman, earning some extra cash as a medical-research subject, patiently sits as a long tube is threaded down her esophagus. Sharp and precise as its tableaux might be, though, Sleeping Beauty never burrows into the brain, and its tenuous provocations fizzle out quickly.
That porcelain-skinned sprite we first see gagging in a sterile science lab is Lucy (Emily Browning), a university student who works other menial jobs: pub waitress, office filer. Off the clock, she nurses drinks in upscale bars and lets a coin toss determine which odious middle-aged stranger she’s having sex with that night. Her penchant for passivity and servility—plus a need for more cash—makes her an ideal candidate for wine-pouring at a kinky “silver service” that caters to wealthy geriatrics, a gig that pays $250 an hour. Instructed by her shift supervisor to apply lipstick that exactly matches the color of her labia, Lucy tops off drinks in lacy white fetish wear while the other servers and creaky aristos are arranged as if in a Marina Abramovic performance piece costume-designed by the Marquis de Sade. Soon, the soignée proprietress of this enterprise, Clara (Rachael Blake), taps Lucy for even more specialized, lucrative work: going into deepest, dreamless, drug-induced slumber while the gray-haired clients do whatever they wish with her, though house rules apply: “No penetration, and take care not to leave any marks.”
Almost everything that happens to Lucy during her unconscious state remains as mysterious to us as it does to her, with Leigh cutting away after the first few minutes of each encounter, just long enough for us to see caressing, violent mouth exploration and her tiny, limp body being tossed around. We’re implicitly asked to play the rest of these scenes out in our head, which seems less like a challenge than a narrative dead end, with ambiguity becoming unintelligibility. When Lucy finally asserts herself, telling Clara that she needs to see, just once, what is done to her while she’s comatose, the end result of her violation of protocol proves even more obfuscating.
In Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, an obvious precursor to Leigh’s film, the enigmatic, cosseted housewife played by Catherine Deneuve finds a bizarre psychosexual liberation through her 2-to-5 shift at a boutique brothel. What happens there also remains largely offscreen, but Buñuel’s protagonist, unlike Lucy, possesses desire and sexual curiosity. Leigh’s affectless heroine, in contrast, is forever engaged in joyless, inexplicable rituals, professionally and personally; her visits to a shut-in friend are marked by a strange exchange of pleasantries, delivered robotically. (Although any actress would struggle with such a circumscribed role, imagining the supremely talented Mia Wasikowska, who was originally cast as Lucy but dropped out because of scheduling conflicts, as the lead instead of the less-assured Browning is the only pleasurable fantasy this film provides.)
Leigh’s movie also, of course, nods to the zonked-out damsel of the centuries-old fairy tale—a legend subverted much more memorably in Catherine Breillat’s clear, defiant The Sleeping Beauty, released earlier this year. But Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty isn’t a reinterpretation of the heroine of yore. Wrestling with that myth would require, at the very least, a point of view—a willingness to wake up.