The title alone should be an indication that Julia Leigh’s writing and directing debut feature, Sleeping Beauty, has more on its mind than just titillating audiences with the story of a young university student who becomes a strange kind of sex-worker. There’s an allegorical quality to what Leigh’s up to here. This is a movie about a woman who moves through her life in a fog, from one crummy low-wage job to the next, with only a few tawdry sexual encounters and the occasional intoxicant to fill the time between shifts and classes. Then she answers an ad from an agency that supplies wealthy old men with stylish, partially nude ladies to serve them gourmet meals. After a few successful services, her boss gives her a promotion. Her new assignment? Taking a drug that knocks her out for eight hours while men are allowed to do anything they wish to her, so long as there’s no vaginal penetration and no visible scars or bruises when they’re done. At that point, the character isn’t just a restless kid on a dangerous adventure any more; she becomes a metaphor for how womankind is confined by masculine desire.
Or at least that’s how she is in the way Leigh tells her story. Sleeping Beauty certainly didn’t have to move in that direction. Emily Browning gives a game performance as the unconscious sex object, but Leigh doesn’t provide her with a lot to work with in terms of motivation, dimension, or any kind of rich interior life. Instead, we see Browning shrug her way through her boss’ initial lecture about how she should see this job as a “windfall,” not a career, and then come home after her first night on the job and set fire to a $100 bill. The clear message is that Browning isn’t doing this gig for the money, nor is she offering blowjobs to strangers in bars for the sex, or cuddling at night with a deeply troubled male friend for the affection. Browning seems largely to be a construct, designed to give men what they need, and to make the audience contemplate what men need.
And yet Leigh’s basic premise is so strong that it largely survives her efforts to turn Sleeping Beauty into a heavy-handed thinkpiece. There’s an evocative Euro-smut quality to the lavish mansions and mysterious underground societies depicted in the movie, and a fundamental fascination to the repeated scenes of withered perverts indulging their fantasies while Browning snoozes. Some men are almost sweet in the way they caress her; some are scary in the way they walk right up to the line of abuse. All are made more poignant by their raw want, and their inability to find proper satisfaction with the waking.