The opening image is of a young girl, twenty going on twelve, pale enough to make you worry if she’s ever seen the sun. She’s sitting in an antiseptic lab having a tube shoved ever so slowly down her mouth, inch by inch. The male scientist, leaning above her says, “You’re doing a great job,” as she swallows every inch of his tube, gagging along the way. This tells you almost everything you need to know about what is to come.
Our pale subject is Lucy (Emily Browning), a college student working multiple underpaid jobs, each as meaningless and empty as the next: office drone, lonely waitress, research rat. It’s clear she needs the money but there’s something more that propels her to compulsively work all the time. She seems to be empty, looking for something to fill the void. This leads her to answer an unusual ad in the paper, propelling her into a world of unusual sex work.
What do I mean by unusual sex work? Well, at first it seems fairly innocuous. She arrives at a mansion run by a classy madam named Clara (Rachel Blake). There she dresses up as the fair virgin, in shell-colored lingerie, and is required to wear a lipstick shade that, wait for it, matches the color of her labia. Inside the mansion is a dinner party for a select group of older clientele, who dine while Lucy pours brandies, and taller, older Robert Palmeresque women in sexy black outfits act as human props for the guests to grab at and prod. Then things take a turn – Lucy gets “promoted” to a higher-paying role that involves the utmost discretion. In this case promotion requires that Lucy drink a narcotic tea that makes her unconscious. Naked, she is placed in a stylized bedroom, where clients who are promised full privacy are allowed to do anything they want to the unconscious “sleeping beauty” with one caveat: no penetration.
That exception seems like a joke, as if to intimate that the only sexual violation a woman can experience is that of unwanted penetration. There are so many more ways to violate a person as we learn by witnessing a series of older men exercise not only their deepest desires upon the coma-induced child-like “woman”, but also lament their loss of youth. One man takes his sadism out, burning a cigarette behind her ear. The sleeping beauty doesn’t even feel her skin burn as she slumbers away peacefully. Another man merely cuddles and sleeps next to her. Another throws her around, eventually too saddened by her unwilling state to do anything to her. Each of these men stand in stark opposition to her tiny nubile, almost ageless figure. The exposed milkiness of her fair skin, her hair that seems spun from gold make her almost an unreal figure. She becomes a symbol, allowing the viewer to also indulge in pure voyeurism with no consequence. When Clara reassures the men, “You’ll be safe here. There’s no shame. No one can see you,” she’s also talking to us. We’re safe in our film-going seats. No one can see us. Which leaves me to wonder about the ramifications of being a voyeur in a film where a young woman is forced into a situation where she is unable to know what is being done to her body, and has landed there potentially because of her financial situation and the implied neglect she suffered as a child.
While “no penetration” is the rule for the clients, it also seems to be a possible thematic framework with which to analyze this film. There seems to be no penetration of any kind. We don’t get to see much of Lucy’s inner life. We hear briefly that her mother is an alcoholic, and we see Lucy mete out her limited affections for her troubled, literary addict friend Birdman. Yet the film doesn’t draw these threads out far enough to get us close enough to Lucy to understand or make meaning. I couldn’t help but draw the conclusion that her willingness to do anything for anyone stemmed from always being the caretaker to an adult parent unable to do so themselves. Without penetration we are unable to see inside our protagonist. Instead we are left on the surface, with no answer, and not even any probing questions to answer for ourselves. Rather, while the film shows the desires of various men nearing their deathbeds, it fails to show us any of Lucy’s desire, inevitably giving us an uneven playing field, where all the power is left to the rich, old, white guys. Additionally, as Lucy sleeps and is prodded, we too know more about her than she does, lumping us in with the creepy clientele.
Luckily the film is evocative and a promising first effort; it’s a sign that both director Leigh and actress Browning have bright futures ahead. The film is visually stunning; the collaboration between cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson, production designer Annie Beauchamp and director Leigh render many of the shots to look like living Manets. The long, uninterrupted takes, perhaps a nod to Kubrick, show Leigh’s gifts as a director in focusing our attention instead of allowing us escape.
Ultimately, the film feels like a pretty face with not much to say. It raises issues of sex work as empowerment versus enslavement, the idea of defiling the pure youthful virgin, the way desire can devour ethics, and yet those issues seem to be drowned out by the soft-core hyper-stylized seduction of it all. While the film leaves its troubling premise largely unanswered for, it does try to probe the fascinating question that dominates most current psychoanalytic thought: what are we beyond our desires? Maybe, as the film suggests, nothing.
Sleeping Beauty is playing at San Francisco Film Society Cinema (1746 Post Street) through February 2.