Reel Women: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a Lifeless Exercise in Pointless Obscurity
Julia Leigh's 'Sleeping Beauty' is quite a beautiful failure. A film with a plot that suggests it could inspire legitimate debate over ideas of empowerment and body ownership instead relies on the needless obscurity of its main character.
The film follows a young woman (Emily Browning) who works several jobs to support herself through school is drawn into a world of serving rich old white people dinner while naked and, eventually, letting rich old white dudes pay to cuddle up next to her sedate, nude body.
The catch? No penetration (thank God for that), but they can do pretty much anything else they want – not that we’ll ever see exactly what this entails.
Julia Leigh’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is a problematic film with an intense undercurrent of potential that’s squandered in favor of stuffy, episodic sequences that deliberately obscure plot and motivation, resulting in a pretentious, cold narrative, as lifeless and pale as Browning’s limp body.
The best you could hope for with a film like this is a gray moral area that explores the idea of body ownership and empowerment. When we think of strippers, we skew one of two ways: The woman is empowered in the removal of her clothes and the pandering to primitive sexual desires because she is in control of everything that happens the moment she walks through that door. Or, we think that a strip club is a cesspool of shameless mouth-breathers where women are degraded for the pleasure of men. Frankly, either scenario is workable, circumstances depending, but the shades of grey in between and the distinction that each person’s motivations in such an environment vary from person to person often eludes us.
With ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ there is no distinction between what is morally acceptable and not, and thus no barometer with which to measure the many shades of grey. The narrative end result feels clumsily constructed even though it was clearly delineated and carefully measured from inception to completion. There is no tether here for the audience. Browning is a fine, capable actress and her commitment to the role’s requirements would seem more impressive if her character felt like anything other than a blank slate.
Or perhaps that’s the point. Browning is an empty vessel for the men around her. From the longtime, ailing friend she cares for to the old men who pay a premium to impotently caress her porcelain skin while she slumbers, she is a washed out wall on which men project their needs. Near the film’s end she visits her sick friend and in an attempt to comfort him she removes her top and crawls into bed next to him. In this moment it’s apparent that the only way she knows how to be of use to anyone is by way of service. This is why so many of the jobs she takes up prior to the titular arrangement involve placing herself in a form of servitude that surrenders her dignity – whether it’s her bodily integrity or her mental integrity. As a waitress – one of the lowest forms of work we often consider – she scrubs tables relentlessly and thanklessly. As some sort of medical test subject she has a long tube placed down her throat as she coughs and gags her way to a paycheck.
The extended scene where Browning dry heaves while the tube hangs down her throat is excruciating to watch, and feels akin to the work of Michael Haneke. It’s in this scene that Julia Leigh achieves in eliciting any measure of complexity, strangely enough. Our minds naturally correlate the choking sounds with sexual activity, but Browning is engaged in a sexless medical activity that shouldn’t stir desirous thought. Unlike Haneke, it doesn’t feel as though Leigh is simultaneously provoking and scolding us; instead it’s entirely up to the audience to feel a sense of guilt when they desire to see Browning sexually compromised.
And that one scene could do well to sum up the film’s entirety, if the film had any compelling direction. But Leigh relies too heavily on that pretentious obscuring of character and plot, creating a film that is bloodless and apathetic – we should be able to connect with this character so that we feel worse when we clamor for the sexual deviancy that never comes. Unfortunately what we’re left with is a character who has been so closed off by her creator and so purposefully – in perhaps the greatest display of misguided artistry this side of collegiate tampon sculptures – buried under the weight of that creator’s aesthetic posturing that we cannot possibly empathize, no matter how much we’d like to.
A perfect example of the lack of narrative structure is the reveal that Browning is paying her way through college in the third act. From the outset, we’re only shown that she works several jobs and is having trouble paying her end of the rent to her pushy roommate, who happens to be male. If she were, say, caring for a sick relative with her money or paying her way through school, her decision to join the – it seemingly has no name in the film, so let’s roll with this – 'Eyes Wide Shut' agency would be a much more empathetic one.
That’s not to say that her decision is a deplorable one or even morally wrong. It is her body to do with as she wishes, and it never feels as if she’s being taken advantage of. The only question the film (hardly) succeeds in raising is that of empowerment in regards to bodily control. A stripper has rules regarding touching and respect and is in control at all times of how much clothing she removes and how she conducts herself. A prostitute – a profession that should be legal for safety reasons if nothing else – even has her own code of conduct and rules her customers must follow. The difference here is that our protagonist is put under sedation, relinquishing control over what happens to her body when she enters the bedroom. She is promised by her boss that no man will enter her because her vagina is a temple, and we understand that promise to be genuine. After all, wouldn’t one awake and instantly know they’d been compromised?
And so the elderly men enter the room and drolly babble on and on about their impotence and their need to feel closeness. They disrobe and lay with her, caressing her skin, inspecting her body, and in at least one instance, slapping her and dragging her off the bed. Mostly they seem to just want to touch something that beautiful and absorb her youth, feeling empowered themselves. But what is so empowering about fondling – however innocently – a woman after she’s been knocked out by a nice cup of roofie tea? The conversations between the men and the madam that runs the operation are meant to evoke a sense of gentle sweetness and help us to understand the innocent nature of the act, but they do nothing to elicit any emotion either way.
Just like we say a woman is empowered by objectifying herself, Julia Leigh seems to be saying a woman is equally empowered by taking a roofie-like sedative of her own free will.
We possibly identify more with the men in the film as ‘Sleeping Beauty’ serves as an endless hallway of projections. The men project onto Browning. We project onto them. We project onto her. We project onto the damn film our hopes that it had been able to eloquently inspire these conversations instead of leaving us cold, fighting to decipher or discern any meaning from its glossy, limp shell. Does it seem as though it at least partially succeeded, with this analysis only possible due to the film’s mere existence? Sure. But it’s such an inept construction of flat, two-dimensional parts – like a butchered array of paper doll pieces – that finding any meaning within the film is a near-futile exercise in headache tolerance and alleviation. So like the men in the film project their desires onto Browning, any conversation or analysis this film has conjured is merely a projection of the desired outcome.