Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty”, which played in a discreet 9:30 slot on Saturday night at the 12th Annual Santa Fe Film Festival, has already gained a reputation for being erotic, insipid, brave, disappointing, groundbreaking, regressive and a host of other contradictions. It’s no wonder. A young woman consents to being drugged for the purpose of complete submission to the sexual whims of an ultra-rich clientele. At first glance, this plot might appear an invitation to take part in some tawdry voyeurism.
For me, the film was an expose about what infantile fantasies secretly motivate the wealthy, power-obsessed male psyche and how nature, the feminine and all that is beautiful is shamelessly sacrificed to his insatiable appetite.
To my knowledge, the nocturnal Beauty that slumbers in the nucleus of this movie never reveals her motivation for why she is making herself available to the host of parasitic vermin that covet her porcelain complexion and exquisite figure, but there is an important moment near the mid-point of the story that assures us it is not for the money, as we would assume, and that single episode supercharged my interest the character of Lucy.
The scene takes place after a high-end rendezvous when she returns home with an impressive stack of cash which she lays on the coffee table and pauses to gaze at luxuriantly. While hardly taking her eyes off the loot, she opens a small wooden box and takes out what is, presumably, a partially smoked joint, lights it, takes a hit and uses the lighter to burn one of the bills from the top of the stack. This did not come off, for me, as some kind of absurd irony. It takes place at the midpoint of the story precisely because it is meant to upturn all our presumptions about the heroine. It fascinated me and made me want to stick around to see where the story was going.
Lucy works at two dead end jobs, one as a waitress where she is always seen cleaning up at closing time, one as an office temp where she is sequestered in a room full of duplicating machines. She also attends classes at college in which she seems to take absolutely zero interest. On top of this, Lucy regularly submits herself to a perplexing lab experiment where she is required to swallow a latex bladder attached to a hose that makes her wretch and gag while the researcher inflates it in her throat. For this she is paid all of thirty bucks and she continues to show up for this clinical ritual even after she has broken into big time sex games with the super-rich. In addition to all this she persists in soliciting flagrantly licentious liaisons with any vulture that happens to circle her bar stool.
“My vagina is not a temple”, Lucy replies in direct contradiction to the enigmatic Clara, the exquisitely groomed, garbed and gracious pimp, played by Rachael Blake, who pairs Lucy with her prosperous predators. Contrary to what predators in the audience may conclude, this does not make Lucy complicit in her violation. It implies that the dominant male paradigm has perverted the culture and this young woman is so utterly steeped in its brazen sexism that she has never developed the slightest sense of her sexual self-worth.
I’m fairly certain that our disgust at the end of the film was intended by the filmmaker, and possibly some of the negative reviews of “Sleeping Beauty” derive from the inability of those reviewers to separate the harsh emotional resonances at the film’s conclusion from their own conclusions about the film. In saying this I do not mean to criticize the critics. One cannot argue with one’s feelings. Their response is natural and, on one hand, completely understandable, but I kept asking myself during the movie, why is this filmmaker wading into these murky metaphors? She must have anticipated being rewarded by many viewers with resentment and ridicule.
I presume the filmmaker is deliberately courting controversy but if I suspected that she was doing so for her own glory, or simply for the sake of pushing buttons, I would go right along with the skeptics. If I am correct about her intentions, the director’s position is reactionary–calculated to tweak her audience’s moral equilibrium for sure–but it is done so neither as a tease or a joke, so it did not invalidate the movie’s importance for me.
The most telling event in the story is repeated three times so that we really have a chance to catch on. Every time a date with the latest rich old fart has been set-up, Clara brings him into the room where Lucy slumbers, unconsciousness in bed. “It’s safe here.” Clara assures him. “No one can see you and there is no shame.”
Viola! The power hungry male fantasy is exposed in all its impotent, puerile ingenuity. What is being laid bare in Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” is not the divine body of Emily Browning. It is what all those aging rich dudes reach for as their precious power begins fading. It drives them to claw their way to the top and stoop so low to plunder nature, the dreams of humankind and all things precious and beautiful. They do it for this measly, pathetic, artificial gratification–to claim for their over-nourished egos the privilege of possessing, enslaving, and violating the most cherished things on earth in a place where they imagine no one can see them, punish them or interfere in anyway.
I recognize the value of this wake up call, which allows the audience to catch them with their pants down and expose them for what they have really been up to while we sleep.
If my assumptions about this film are correct, Sr. Louis Buñeul would be Ms. Julia Leigh’s patron saint. In these critical times, in which a doctrine of greed and manipulation of the masses has been cooped from the Popes and retro-fitted into the agendas of the corporate elites, perhaps we should all be more open-minded to transgressive cinema like this.