His curiosity was less than strong, because the dreariness of old age lay already upon him too. “Some gentlemen say they have good dreams when they come here,” the woman had said. “Some say they remember how it was when they were young.”
— Yasunari Kawabata, House of the Sleeping Beauties
Around the middle of Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011), an old man heading towards the end of his life looks directly into the camera and tells a story. Sitting on the end of a long bed with a beautiful sleeping girl in it, he remembers a book he received for his thirtieth birthday. It is Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann’s The Thirtieth Year, a philosophical account of a year when, no longer young and not yet old, a drifting, middle-class man discards old dreams and heads towards new ones. It is a long story and the man tells it in detail, summarising some parts and directly quoting others. For the first and only time in the film, the fourth wall is broken. The man looks straight out at us, warning us of what is to come. His thirtieth year has passed; he has no more dreams. ‘There will soon come a time’, he tells the blank-faced madam, Clara (Rachael Blake), ‘when I will call on you to help me.’ And for the first time in this slow, stern film, she looks uneasy.
In Sleeping Beauty, disaffected university student Lucy (Emily Browning) works a stream of dull, menial jobs to make ends meet. Young and free to push the boundaries of her body, she takes part in medical trials, has sex with strangers and, when she still can’t pay her rent, takes a job as an erotic waitress for exclusive dinner parties. Her only friend is a depressed alcoholic named Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), who once wanted to kiss her but didn’t because his tongue was furry. Her success at the dinners – kitsch, staged affairs replete with warmed brandy, truffle oil and caviar – leads to an invitation to become a ‘sleeping beauty’. As a sleeping beauty, she is put to sleep, naked, and old men pay to spend the night with her, though sexual penetration is strictly forbidden. Inevitably, Lucy becomes curious about what happens to her in the sleeping beauty chamber, and plans to secretly film the room one evening. But that night, the old man whose life was marked by Ingeborg Bachmann’s story chooses to die beside her. Woken from the brink of death herself, Lucy howls as she re-emerges, made new, into the world.
Like Bachmann’s story, Leigh’s film sets out to be a slippery affair, alluding to death and longing in ways that are often clouded by settings and situations. First-time director Leigh had written two novels, The Hunter (1999) and Disquiet (2008), prior to making the film, and her novelistic sensibility is felt in every frame. Sleeping Beauty is a fairytale, an allegory and a meditation. Set in Sydney, it bears a haunting resemblance to the world we know, but its logic is that of fairytales and legends. Gabriel García Márquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores and Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties are predecessors to Leigh’s tale, and the ties between Sleeping Beauty and Kawabata’s novella are particularly strong. Clara’s stern command to each man entering the chamber that ‘There will be no penetration’ is a rendition of Kawabata’s beginning: ‘He was not to do anything in bad taste, the woman of the inn warned old Eguchi. He was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping girl, or try anything else of that sort.’Yasunari Kawabata, House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, trans. Edward G. Seidensticker, Quadriga Press, London, 1969, p. 13. Towards the end of the book, a man dies beside a sleeping beauty and a sleeping beauty dies beside old Eguchi, mirroring the deaths that happen in the film.
As these literary allusions make clear, the melancholy of approaching death and disappointed desire are at the heart of Sleeping Beauty. Death is present in the lives of the young as well as the old. Lonely, broken Birdmann spends his days drinking and preparing to die. Like an old cat, he has turned his apartment into a warm nesting hole where he can wait, away from the world, for death. When he decides it is time, he swallows several packets of sleeping pills and, with Lucy curled up in his arms, he passes into the afterlife. Lucy lets him go. She doesn’t call an ambulance, and later tells a mutual friend that she hadn’t seen him in months. This unsettling respect for another person’s most destructive desire is one of the film’s most distinctive qualities. It shows empathy while raising several ethical questions. The empathy is presented both in Lucy’s willful acceptance of Birdmann’s choice and in the still and unobtrusive camera set-ups. It’s an incredibly bold depiction of suicide, but questions linger. Can one really choose one’s own death? Can you let someone you love die if they want to?
In an interview on ABC radio, Leigh described the camera as ‘a tender, steady witness,’ and this it is.Sex, Lies and Secrets, ABC Radio 774 Melbourne, <http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2011/06/21/3249656.htm>, accessed 4 August 2011. Eschewing the zooms and close-ups often associated with voyeurism, Leigh chooses to show most of the action in medium and long shots, with a still camera covering whole scenes from one position. Even the scenes inside the sleeping beauty chamber are shot this way; the camera is placed where the fourth wall of the room would be. What happens in the chamber is secret, but there is nothing – no frames within the frame, no windows or spy holes – to give the audience the feeling of covert looking. Instead, the camera shows us all, challenging us to look without judgement. If we can. Free to do as he wishes with the unconscious Lucy, one of the men unleashes a barrage of fury. ‘Slut’, he calls her, ‘whore’, and climbing on top of her slumbering body, he flicks her ear with his lit cigarette. It is unsettling because the camera takes no position. The onus is on us to decide whether to condemn the man for his private anger or to accept his desperate rage as a pitiful expression of his own impotence. By presenting us with this still and passive point of view, Leigh challenges us to find empathy – both for the angry, brutish man and the destructive, lonely girl.
This is easier said than done. While the formal composition and slow pace have led some critics to hyperbolically compare the film to European masters like Luis Buñuel and Michael Haneke, others have been less than kind, calling the film boring, misogynistic and pretentious. Online film magazine First Showing’s Alex Billington found it ‘pointless, bland, pretentious and frustrating’, while in Variety, Peter Debruge felt ‘the film’s frustratingly elliptical style and lack of character insight give it a distinctly first-draft feel.’Alex Billington, ‘Cannes 2011 Review: Emily Browning in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty’, First Showing, 12 May 2011, <http://www.firstshowing.net/2011/cannes-2011-review-emily-browning-in-julia-leighs-sleeping-beauty/>, accessed 23 August 2011; Peter Debruge, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Variety, 11 May 2011, <http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117945195/>, accessed 23 August 2011. Criticism is changing, and with blogs and websites now influencing the cinema-going public more than traditional media, it has been interesting to observe the wildly polarised public responses to Sleeping Beauty’s perceived, or not perceived, Australianness. As the Guardian reported, an Australian audience member at Cannes expressed embarrassment at coming from the same country as the film. Given our small film industry and uneasy cultural identity, it is perhaps unsurprising that Australian films, especially those that appeal to an international audience, are to some degree assessed in terms of their contribution to a national cultural identity. In 1980, cultural studies academic Meaghan Morris had this to say about the depiction of sex in Australian cinema:
The representation of personal and sexual relationships in Australian films has provoked considerable debate over the past 10 years, much of it acrimonious. In the arguments about the images of women, or over the predominance of a certain kind of male perception in Australian films, it is as though some essential truth were at stake about Australian cultural identity.Meaghan Morris, ‘Personal Relationships and Sexuality’ in Scott Murray (ed.), The New Australian Cinema, Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p. 133.
This anxiety over how we, as a nation, might be perceived via our on-screen images of sex remains. While Sleeping Beauty’s true themes are ageing and the waning of one’s passion for life, the film’s Australian origins, combined with its plainly shot nudity and the erotic nature of Lucy’s job, have dominated discussions in the media. Sleeping Beauty is neither actively un-Australian, nor actively Australian. Despite its Sydney setting, most of the film takes place indoors or in banally unrecognisable urban areas. Prostitution, sex and getting old are human themes pondered by all nations, and the characters here are distinguished by their class and social standing rather than by their nationality. In a recent article in the Australian, author M. J. Hyland criticised the Miles Franklin Award’s test of Australianness, saying, ‘It’s so patronising … to say there’s something typically Australian, that can be a sort of segregation’.Quoted in Stephen Romei, ‘Home is Where the Hurt is’, The Australian, 4 August 2011, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/mj-hyland-home-is-where-the-hurt-is/story-e6frg8n6-1226107677999>, accessed 4 August 2011. In Hyland’s view, literature ought to be judged on its literary merit, regardless of where it is set or whether or not it has gum trees in it. This argument could equally be applied to Leigh’s film. Sleeping Beauty has nothing at all to say about being Australian, but a lot to say about being human. It warrants being looked at from an aesthetic, thematic and ethical point of view.
Sleeping Beauty has more in common with Leigh’s previous work, the short, elliptical novella Disquiet, than with other recent Australian films. Both engage with death in a surprising way, both are concerned with slowly passing time and both have a surfeit of material detail. Writing in the Guardian, Justine Jordan described Disquiet as showing a ‘gloating attention to the fine surfaces of things’.Justine Jordan, ‘Quelle Horreur’, The Guardian, 3 May 2008, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/may/03/featuresreviews.guardianreview23>, accessed 4 August 2011. The laboured descriptions of crockery and upholstery are finicky and slow, making the rooms feel claustrophobic. You can almost smell the mouldering rose and lavender in grandmother’s pot-pourri:
The room was sparely furnished with a few Louis XV pieces, the cabriole legs of the chairs ending in little deer feet. Dozens of antler trophies were collected on the walls. Even with this furniture the room felt empty – in the way an empty room can be made emptier by the addition of a single table. Sophie settled herself on the end of the chaise longue, gingerly; after the birth there must have been stitches or perhaps a bruised coccyx. Grandmother sat opposite her; and Ida stood behind Grandmother, as was her place.Julia Leigh, Disquiet, Penguin, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 16–17.
This deliberate and careful placement of people in rooms is seen again in Sleeping Beauty. Clara’s country mansion bears more than a little resemblance to Disquiet’s mysterious chateau, and Leigh has her characters move through the formal, lushly decorated rooms as if they are in a painted world. Each time Clara brings a man into the sleeping beauty chamber, we see Lucy sleeping neatly in the middle of the frame. Clara and the guest sit formally on the end of the bed, with Lucy between them. Every frame is balanced in a way that is unnerving in its rigorous symmetry. Each evening before Lucy enters the sleeping beauty chamber, the two women sit upright in high-backed chairs while Clara prepares the sleeping draught. The chairs are carefully placed on each third of the screen and framed by dark bookcases on the wall behind them. The preparation of the draught forms a ritual reminiscent of a Japanese tea ceremony, complete with whisking brush and round wooden tea holder, and the slowness of the action is emphasised by the repetition. Every time Lucy comes to work at the country house, we watch the preparation of the potion from the same angle.
Time, long and short, lived and not lived, pervades Sleeping Beauty. At the very end of life the old men feel time running out. They dream of their long-blunted desire and yearn for a chance to touch youth again. Lucy, on the other hand, has more time than she can fill. The opening sequence of the film is essentially an extended montage of Lucy performing a series of menial jobs. She scrubs tables in a cafe and photocopies endless reams of paper in a windowless office. She sits, bored and disengaged, in a lecture hall. These scenes establish Lucy’s character and give the audience a sense of her experience of time as a series of discrete, repeated episodes. Each event in Lucy’s mundane life seems to take roughly the same amount of time. No development takes place and it is difficult to determine whether we are being shown a period of days, weeks or months. Repetition so dominates Lucy’s existence that even her conversations seem to have been had before. Each time she turns up at Birdmann’s house, fresh bottle of vodka in hand, they repeat the same formal greeting. It is both a familiar game that establishes their long friendship, and an acknowledgement that there is nothing new to be said. This world-weariness is reflected in Birdmann’s sleepy movement, in the slouched shoulders and nonchalant gait of the other waitresses at the erotic dinner party, and in the slow, even tempo of Lucy’s days. Nothing is done in a hurry. Each action has been made before.
While there is very little erotic about the nudity in Sleeping Beauty, there is plenty of anxiety surrounding the presentation of the body. When Lucy interviews to become an adult waitress, she is asked to strip. Clara and her assistant Tom (Eden Falk) examine Lucy. ‘What’s this?’ Tom asks, pointing to an unseen mark on her leg. ‘I had a mole removed,’ Lucy says. Clara squeezes one of her breasts with a gesture that is rough and business-like. ‘You are very beautiful,’ Clara says as if she were delivering a medical report. But what is beauty, in a world of such clinical surfaces? Lucy herself treats her body mechanically, as if it were a thing somehow disconnected from her soul. One of her jobs is as a test subject in a science lab, and in an excruciatingly long sequence we watch as a young doctor pushes a tube slowly down her throat. Lucy gags each time the tube inches further into her body, and the camera doesn’t move, the still, unflinching, shot making the scene feel slower than it is. To watch someone in such particular discomfort for so long is powerfully affective. The woman in the cinema beside me put her hand to her throat, a physical response to seeing a body pushed to its limits. This clinical, scientific testing recalls David Cronenberg’s bodily transgressions, but unlike Dead Ringers (1988) and The Fly (1986), Sleeping Beauty is not visceral. Lucy’s body is as clean and sterile as the science lab. The physical affect of the shot can’t come from the camera movement or the cuts, because there aren’t any. The transference is an empathetic one that we share with Lucy each time she chokes.
A more visceral discomfort is shown when Lucy works for Clara for the first time. After arriving at an imposing mansion, head waitress Sophie (Mirrah Foulkes) directs her into a dressing room to change. ‘There is make-up by the mirror,’ she tells Lucy. ‘I want you to paint your lips the same, the exact same, colour as your vulva.’ Finding the request ridiculous, Lucy deliberately paints her mouth a garish pink. ‘It’s not a joke,’ Sophie snaps, reapplying the lipstick. Dressed in an off-white bra and white stockings, Lucy’s only job is to pour wine for the smartly dressed dinner guests. There is a skin-crawling discomfort about this sequence, accentuated by the way the camera coolly registers Lucy’s awkward exposure and her unease. This tacky dinner party lacks all eroticism, and in contrast to the later, more dreamlike scenes in the sleeping beauty chamber, the set-up is starkly real. The girls look cold, Lucy’s flesh is faintly goosepimpled and the slightly grubby colour of her underwear makes her skin look deathly pale. The suited guests are acting a good time, rather than having one, making stilted, formal conversation and going through the motions of a dinner party. It looks just like what it is – a shabby fantasy enacted in the real world.
In 1844, after the death of his son, the American writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘We thrive by casualties. Our chief experiences have been casual.’Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Experience’, in Essays and Other Writings, Cassell, London, 1907. For Emerson, we, like Lucy, skate on the surfaces of life. Seeing death offers us the possibility of true feeling, but even death can be felt casually. ‘The only thing grief has taught me,’ he said, ‘is to know how shallow it is.’ In Sleeping Beauty, each character drives towards death through a series of experiences that, despite their gravity, are treated with the utmost carelessness. Lucy tosses a coin to determine whether or not she’ll sleep with a suit in a bar, and later spontaneously asks an ex-boyfriend to marry her at Birdmann’s funeral. It is hard to tell whether she is joking or not. Later, she tells Clara she is healthy, even though it is clear the sleeping potion won’t react well with with the ecstasy she took the night before. As a character, Lucy recalls Jackie (Kate Dickie) in Andrea Arnold’s Red Road (2006), another film about looking that is driven by a passively destructive protagonist. Both women act out a series of dangerous escapades, and it is only when they reach the verge of death that something inside shifts and they are, in a sense, reborn.
Lucy’s rebirth happens in the final moments of Sleeping Beauty and is played literally, with a birth-like howl. Having stopped breathing while sleeping under the potion’s influence, Lucy is forced back to life by Clara. Jolted awake to find an old man lying dead beside her, Lucy unleashes a horrifying cry. The film ends – an abrupt but strangely hopeful ending. Having finally connected her internal and external lives, Lucy is ready to cherish life.
|1||Yasunari Kawabata, House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories, trans. Edward G. Seidensticker, Quadriga Press, London, 1969, p. 13.|
|2||Sex, Lies and Secrets, ABC Radio 774 Melbourne, <http://www.abc.net.au/local/audio/2011/06/21/3249656.htm>, accessed 4 August 2011.|
|3||Alex Billington, ‘Cannes 2011 Review: Emily Browning in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty’, First Showing, 12 May 2011, <http://www.firstshowing.net/2011/cannes-2011-review-emily-browning-in-julia-leighs-sleeping-beauty/>, accessed 23 August 2011; Peter Debruge, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, Variety, 11 May 2011, <http://www.variety.com/review/VE1117945195/>, accessed 23 August 2011.|
|4||Meaghan Morris, ‘Personal Relationships and Sexuality’ in Scott Murray (ed.), The New Australian Cinema, Nelson, Melbourne, 1980, p. 133.|
|5||Quoted in Stephen Romei, ‘Home is Where the Hurt is’, The Australian, 4 August 2011, <http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/arts/mj-hyland-home-is-where-the-hurt-is/story-e6frg8n6-1226107677999>, accessed 4 August 2011.|
|6||Justine Jordan, ‘Quelle Horreur’, The Guardian, 3 May 2008, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/may/03/featuresreviews.guardianreview23>, accessed 4 August 2011.|
|7||Julia Leigh, Disquiet, Penguin, Melbourne, 2008, pp. 16–17.|
|8||Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Experience’, in Essays and Other Writings, Cassell, London, 1907.|