There are two kinds of bad films that actually feel fun to hate. One of them is the loud, shallow, flashy blockbuster breed, which will ALWAYS have its defenders and whose gripes are usually reoccurring. That species is hard to spot at festivals. The kind that does make festival appearances, however, is the shallow, vain, pretentious thing, and these come in all kinds of micro-varieties though always self-content. This is not to be confused with bad films that meant well and make you feel bad for hating, I will get to Always Brando in the future. But for today, let us talk about Australian big-deal Julia Leigh’s directorial debut, Sleeping Beauty, a film that is almost as pretty as it is completely pointless.
Moreso based on Yasunari Kawabata’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties than the popular fairy tale, Emily Browning, whose butt you may remember from Sucker Punch, is Lucy, a university student who is very comfortable with performing tasks for money. That’s not to call her a prostitute, but she’s certainly willing to let her body be exploited for reward, be it at the student research lab fishing tubes down her throat or sleeping with her manager at the campus cafe. Her revenue choices become a little more surreal when she applies to an ad in the paper, leading her to a cold-eyed madam who introduces her to the world of nude food services for the bourgeois. Eventually Lucy’s pasty, tiny body nominates her for a new service, hinted upon by the title, which requires her to be drugged asleep while older gentlemen toy with her slumbering body, though penetration is forbidden.
And that’s about it. That’s the movie.
Rich white men do weird things with their money and this lower-middle class whiter girl likes to find creative combinations of her career and libido. There is a promise of some sort of conflict or, as some know it a “story,” dangling on a string out of reach, but any sense of a tale being told is only referred to instead of hitting dead on. Without plot, the film’s real desire is to provoke you, which it’s not very skilled at either. Making you uncomfortable, yes. But light discomfort, leaning towards plain awkwardness. Like an old man fumbling around with Browning’s tiny naked body like a gorilla figuring its dead child – that kind of thing. It’s odd that “penetration” is excused from the occasion so early. It’s certainly a memorable detail and very telling of the frivolous antics of the rich-geezer class, but also very uninteresting to watch. I don’t hope for rape depictions, but in a world where fetish-heavy antics of The Human Centipede are well-known enough in the social consciousness to get a South Park riff, a wrinkly old man stroking the nude midriff of a snoozing maiden isn’t about to shield eyes. There’s no ante.
There’s an unfortunate mix to Browning herself. While her acting is precise and focused on the cold and apathetic Lucy, proving that she’s more than a pale butt, the character is so stubborn and uninteresting that there’s no tease to be turned on by. She’s got a past, but you’ll never know it, and if she has an objective then hell if we’ll ever find out. The only emotions she does project are her efforts towards being a provocative bitch. She’s a good profile on someone impatient and bored, though with all that’s on the plate you shall soon join her.
Similarly, Leigh’s work behind the camera is, at the very least, pretty. Repetition and monotony are big themes, and the way “routines” are hammered in certainly make their point. The colour use is also kind; the stale mansion and the nude models who fill it are hard to complain about. When it isn’t of the constructed world of wealthy eroticism, it’s the bland simple surroundings of the real world, which certainly stake the divide between what money can buy and what money leaves behind. But even the good efforts are a little wasted on a shallow product.
This is not an art project lost – the ideas at work at not hard to grasp. It just seems frivolous, and there’s a sensation that Leigh felt more bold of her actions than her actions are bold. It drags its feet and the world is so sterile and uninteresting it can practically put you to…
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