The trailer for Sleeping Beauty (directed by Julia Leigh, 2011) clocking in at just over one minute and 30 seconds, is composed of 24 shots, ranging from one to five seconds long, although time feels stretched out and warped here. We know right away that we’ve entered into a nightmare—as finely detailed and sculpturally formal as a van Eyck painting—but a nightmare nonetheless, and by the time the trailer ends a wicked spell has been cast. “We rely on mutual trust and discretion,” Clara (Rachael Blake), the manager of the high-end prostitution mansion, tells Lucy (Emily Browning), a new recruit. “And I am obliged to tell you there are heavy penalties—very heavy penalties—for any breach of discretion.” The formality and ambiguity of the threat (obliged, penalties) tremble with menace—the mind races to imagine the elaborate tortures in store for those who “breach” discretion.
The entire trailer is so Kubrick-like in its formality that it verges on a sort of avant-garde Puritanism. In an age where graphic depictions of sexual practice proliferate and are available with a few keystrokes (production design be damned!) the trailer’s sheer force of aesthetic and tonal seriousness suggests either something ironic or deeply reactionary.
Shot 1: The titles OFFICIAL SELECTION COMPETITION FESTIVAL DE CANNES, in white, over the screen, as a woman, in medium shot, walks from left to right across the screen, apartment complexes looming behind her. Our vantage point is from across the street, and as she appears between a parked truck and a parked car she stops and crouches down, it appears, to adjust the strap on one of her high-heeled shoes. She is too distant to be recognizable.
Shot 2: In voice-over, a woman (Clara, we will come to presume) speaking the words “Thank you for coming.” The only movement in the frame comes from the laptop where, presumably, Lucy has arrived at the mansion for her interview. That seems to be her getting up from the chair, but we can’t be sure. Her face has still not been shown to us. The angle and point of view of the shot suggests that we—the audience—have adopted the point-of-view of someone looking at the laptop screen but again, we can’t be sure; perhaps there is no one behind the desk and the shot is, instead, simply the perspective of the camera itself. The frame within the frame suggests two different camera perspectives: the surveillance camera that Lucy may or may not be aware of, and the motion picture camera, the one filming a movie called Sleeping Beauty.
Shot 3: The voice over: “Such a pleasure to see such a unique beauty.” This coincides with the first time we see Lucy clearly enough to appreciate her “beauty,” which makes us weirdly complicit in a way that watching movies is in itself an act of voyeurism. In this shot, as Lucy’s face turns slowly towards the camera, her pale-skinned face framed against the heavy oak, the mansion itself is imagined as a palace with a series of doorways, in this case the doorway Lucy passes through in the background, and the doorway in the foreground which frames her actions.
Shot 4: An establishing shot of the presumed mansion wherein the story unfolds, with the words JANE CAMPION PRESENTS filling the screen in white letters. It is not a dark, gloomy mansion but something open and available in the full sun, as if to suggest that the darkest secrets are hidden in the plain light of day.
Shot 5: Clara’s voice over, as we see her watching as Lucy is inspected: “Let me tell you how things should proceed.” Lucy’s body seems to be glowing. It is white beyond white. The man’s hand upon her thigh, in which direction does it move? The bonsai in the background, carefully selected and tended and restricted in their growth, suggest what will become of Lucy.
Shot 6: Lucy walking along a brick wall, at night, moving towards something, reaching out casually and touching the vines: “I’ll describe the job and then, if you’re interested, we’ll discuss particulars.”
Shot 7: A static shot of Lucy sleeping, naked, her back toward the camera, that seems to recall a shot from Sophia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. A FILM BY JULIA LEIGH in the center of the screen, again in clean white.
Shot 8: “You will be working with other girls, some of whom will have . . . more responsibilities.” That beat, that pause between have and more seems ominous, freighted with meaning, as if the narrator wanted to speak more openly but thought better of it and stopped herself. Why? Who is she afraid of? In this shot, the camera tracks left, to reveal Lucy, standing outside in front of a door into the mansion, looking to her right at something happening off-screen.
Shot 9: For the first time, we adopt Lucy’s point of view, witnessing what she is witnessing: a mincing scene of a woman (another “worker?”) being put, forcibly it seems, into the back of a car. There is no voice over to lead us into understanding the significance of this moment. The bridge between shots 8 and 9 sutures us into the narrative thickness of the trailer, as we take the position of someone within the film: Lucy. First (in shot 8) we see her looking, and then (in this shot) we adopt her gaze as our own.
Film theorist Kaja Silverman has written that “Equally important to the cinematic organization are the operations of cutting and excluding. It is not merely that the camera is incapable of showing us everything at once, but that it does not wish to do so. We must be shown only enough to know that there is more, and to want that ‘more’ to be disclosed. A prime agency of disclosure is the cut, which divides one shot from the next. The cut guarantees that both the preceding and the subsequent shots will function as structuring absences to the present shot. These absences make possible a signifying ensemble, convert one shot into a signifier of the next one, and the signified of the preceding one.” The process of suture is fundamentally tyrannical (Orson Welles once said that he preferred long shots with no editing because they were more democratic, allowing the viewer’s eyes to wander the screen) because we don’t noticing it happening, as classical film editing is largely invisible to us. Lured on by the expectations and pleasures of the unfolding narrative (what is going to happen next?) we don’t notice (or don’t want to notice) the process by which we are sutured into locked, limited point-of-view shots within the film. The speed of editing and the point of view of shots binds us into a perspective that is simultaneously a way of knowing. In this case, the case of shot 9, we can’t help but identify with Lucy, as we see this act of aggression from her point of view and wonder, as she must: might this happen to her/me?
Shot 10: We are back in the mansion, where Clara and Lucy sit uncomfortably across from each other. “There is room for promotion,” Clara says in voice over. This frame is like an oil painting where the monster is so carefully hidden between brushstrokes, waiting patiently for centuries.
Shot 11: “We rely on mutual trust and discretion and I am obliged to tell you there are . . .” says Clara as Lucy burns what appears to be money. Obliged by whom? The formal obscurity of Clara’s warning suggests a spidery bureaucracy of violence.
Shot 12: “. . . heavy penalties, very heavy . . .” as Lucy rides in the back seat of a car. What, exactly, does she mean? The mind races to imagine the worst sorts of things one human being could do to another.
Shot 13: “. . . penalties for any breaches of discretion. Am I clear?” The driver’s eyes are reflected in the rearview mirror. Just before “Am I clear,” the eyes avert from the road and seize upon Lucy, and once again we have been sutured into her position and are somehow warned, as viewers.
Shot 14: Lucy, dressed casually again, in the “outside” world, it seems, keeping one self hidden from the other self. “It’s not a game.”
Shot 15: This is the shortest shot in the trailer, lasting only one second. A woman in lingerie falls and drops a tray in an opulently outfitted room, and the overdetermined danger of this moment recalls the criticisms leveled against Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut: that the film (as evident in this shot and in shot 18) takes its subject matter more seriously than the audience.
Shot 16: It feels like this shot comes from near the beginning of the movie, perhaps after Lucy has agreed to the job after learning “how things should proceed.” In a white, sterile lab-like room Lucy sits chin up, mouth open, eerily passive (she is someone who allows things to be done to her) as a man in a white lab coat inserts something into her mouth. Perhaps he is making her “more beautiful” (see shot 21).
Shot 17: Now it’s dark, and Lucy is in action, in an even darker bar, revealing her legs to a well-dressed man. He wants them.
Shot 18: A pretty startling image. In her classic essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey wrote that in “a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly. In their traditional exhibitionist role women are simultaneously looked at and displayed, with their appearance coded for strong visual and erotic impact so that they can be said to connote to-be-looked-at-ness.” Even thirty-six years after its appearance (and Mulvey’s own reconsideration of the essay) “Visual Pleasure” vibrates like an arrow that has just struck its target. Yes, the person who directed the film and who wrote it is a woman named Julia Leigh, and there is Jane Campion’s name, right below the prostrate, please-behead-me-or-at least-do-with-me-what-you will position of a woman. The trailer, and this shot in particular, bring to mind a rush of contradictory, fragmented thoughts:
- post-feminist feminism
- there can be power in the rendering of powerlessness, can’t there?
- the shot adopts a presumed male gaze only to subvert it in the parts of the film we haven’t seen
- the clash of formal restraint and blazing sexuality in this frame is interesting
- Leigh’s statement that she was “intrigued by the idea of how would you feel if you knew something was happening to you in your sleep, but you didn’t know exactly what it was.”
- Alfred Hitchcock’s statement to Peter Bogdanovich in 1963: “As I tried to explain to that girl, Kim Novak, ‘You have got a lot of expression in your face. Don’t want any of it.’”
- visual pleasure in the age of visual pleasure
Shot 19: Lucy arises from a chair in an elegant room and begins to take off her dress.
Shot 20: “You are very beautiful, very talented . . .” says the voice, as we glimpse Lucy’s naked body on her back on a bed, a male patron on top of her. The camera moves in on her forearm. She is, presumably, sleeping.
Shot 21: “. . .but we’re going to make you even more beautiful . . .” continues the voice, as this shot is linked to the previous by another image of Lucy’s forearm, her palm opening to reveal something.
Shot 22: “. . . even more talented.” An elderly man in a white beard (Chris Haywood) looks directly at the camera . . .
Shot 23: . . . which is followed by Clara—presumably the voice in the voice over—also looking directly into the camera which, again, may be the implied space where Lucy is. “You’ll feel …”
Shot 24: “. . . profoundly restored.” We see Lucy in water at night, her face like a beacon.
Shot 25: The screen goes black. “Goodnight.”
Shot 26: The dramatic final chords, an image of Lucy asleep in a luxurious bed, her face between the words SLEEPING BEAUTY.
In Briar Rose, his retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale, Robert Coover describes the prince: “Caught in the briars, but still slashing away valiantly, driven more by fear now than by vocation, he seeks to stay his panic with visions of the sleeping princess awaiting him within, as much in love with her deep repose as with any prospect of her awakening.” This is almost too unbearable and totalitarian in the way that romanticism is totalitarian, pretending to free human desire from the artificial restrictions of culture only to lock it back into the prison-house of human signs and words and images. Sleeping Beauty is ever thus, beautiful as long as she remains asleep. In the tightly sealed, hermeneutic world of the Sleeping Beauty trailer, the only way that Lucy will ever feel “profoundly restored” is to never wake up.