Summary taken from IMDB: A haunting portrait of Lucy, a young university student drawn into a mysterious hidden world of unspoken desires
Author Julia Leigh makes her feature-film debut as the writer and director of Sleeping Beauty. It is apparent that at this point in time she does not have the skills to execute her superb allegorically charged ideas. She is getting at something captivating, but has no idea how to make the gaping emptiness on display feel interactively contemplative. Behind the camera she comes through as someone with a capable eye for framing and use of color, backed by a strong technical team. The film is alternately and appropriately luscious and icy. As a filmmaker, her distancing techniques are far too studied and derivative of the likes of Haneke and Breillat, without the elements that make them the vital voices they are. Sometimes her choices are laughable, such as a lengthy monologue featuring Lucy’s (Emily Browning) first client. The gentle elderly man delivers a speech while looking directly at the camera; it is a painfully manufactured contrivance, like something out of a high school theatrical piece.
Her strong suit lies in her ability to take what has been drolly categorized as an erotic drama, and presenting the material with a uniformly effective unerotic frankness. She subverts expectations, and the scenes depicting the clients interactions with Browning are the film’s high points. The clients project their desired purpose onto Lucy; she is a blank slate that reflects much about how men see women as they choose to according to their needs and cravings at any given point.
A common complaint I wholeheartedly do not agree with is that Lucy is too elusive. The way Lucy is portrayed works in theory; again, if only the material were stronger. She is cold and distant although she surrounds herself with people. Her motivations stem not just from money but from a personal quest. Lucy wants to push herself into unknown territory. She is at once impulsive and calculating. Her only real connection is with Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), a lonely suicidal alcoholic who is not long for this world. These scenes remain too underdeveloped to strike; in almost every scene Leigh unfortunately misuses sparse dialogue by sprinkling hollow exchanges that are presented as complex, but really are not. Sleeping Beauty does not bore; I just found myself constantly wishing that the filmmaking and dialogue were up to par with her ideas.
Lucy may seem passive but the opposite is true. She seeks agency through passivity; she is entirely in control and makes herself purposely vulnerable in an extreme way. In a world where women are constantly subordinated, Lucy is trying to make the most of this by turning the needs of men into her own opportunities for experience and money. When I watched Sleeping Beauty, I had been reading quite a lot of Angela Carter, and a lot of her ideas come into play here. Not least is how natural body as commodity is, and how women are looked down upon for simply being logical. Carter was a somewhat radical post-feminist; her ideas are truly fascinating and reflect a lot of what it going on in Leigh’s film.
Something that Sleeping Beauty gets right is this idea of the ludicrous dialogue that comes with the sexual exploration film. Films that deal in shady eroticism always seem laughable to a large chunk of the viewing audience. To me though, these kinds of films have an ongoing absurdist trope that always elicits laughter. There’s a self-conscious stiffness at work that, whether Leigh meant it or not, comes through as a knowing acknowledgment of a long line of arty erotically labeled ‘smut’ films that came before.
I cannot help but think that Sleeping Beauty would have worked better as a novel. I realize this review makes the same statement over and over; but it must be stated for a final time. Julia Leigh’s thematic concerns, her elusive lead character, her distancing tactics all work on their own. But she lacks a filmmaker’s instinctive eye, resulting in a substandard and far too studied work. The last thing this director wanted was for someone to talk out of the film feeling indifferent; and yet all it got from me was a comprehensive shrug. Unable to execute her vision, or to justify its bareness with strong material, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty is thematically rich but, as a film, dead on arrival.