Cash-strapped Australian student Lucy (Browning) begins working in the sex industry, graduating from waitressing in lingerie to submitting to men while drugged and asleep. Mysterious madam Clara (Blake) calls the shots.
When Mia Wasikowska dropped out of the lead role in Sleeping Beauty to film Jane Eyre, she may have been doing fellow Aussie Emily Browning a favour. Directed by newcomer Julia Leigh but presented by the iconic Jane Campion, this is an edgy, attention-grabbing drama the Sucker Punch actress handles admirably, even though her character rarely says a word. The story begins with mild vicarious thrills: Lucy (Browning) is plucked from her pokey flatshare, chauffeured to opulent mansions and paid handsomely just to waitress in skimpy designer gear. But we know something more disturbing awaits — not just from the title but from the suspenseful score, the sparse dialogue and the creepy composure of her elegant employer, Clara (Rachael Blake). Clad in figure-hugging power dresses and pouring drugged tea like an aristocrat, Clara is a femme fatale with a difference. She’s not seducing a man but recruiting a young woman: one who seems oddly okay with the idea of being drugged and touched up by dirty old men.
It’s here — if not before — that some audiences will turn up their noses in distaste. But if you can handle the creepiness it’s a poignant vision of fading male sexuality. These clients are mourning their own lost youth and virility, which fills some with anger and others sadness. Lucy, meanwhile, is strangely compliant. Are we supposed to believe that she enjoys selling her body? That being drugged is a convenient escape from responsibility? Or that this is her way of rebelling, of asserting a kind of power? Julia Leigh’s bold film offers no easy answers, leaving us to muse on Lucy’s motivations and the ethics of paying and being paid for a kinky sexual encounter.
It’s a mistake to call Sleeping Beauty “erotic” in a traditional sense — its view of sex is quite depressing. What is sensual is the patient camerawork that lingers on the beauty of everything it touches, from fabrics to faces — not least Browning’s, whose soulful eyes lend weight and allure to her character when the script holds back.
Narratively, this isn’t perfect: there’s a confusing subplot and some will find its cryptic style pretentious. But when it’s in its stride, it’s mesmerising. Those prepared to submit to Sleeping Beauty’s hypnotic flow will readily forgive its flaws.
This will divide audiences as much as The Tree Of Life, but its a brave and beautiful calling card for both filmmaker and star. Drink it up, sit back and think of a very different Australia.