Film Review: Sleeping Beauty

Brrrr. This study of a young girl’s descent into a most rarefied form of whoring is as coldly clinical as it is annoyingly pretentious.

What with House of Pleasures and now, Sleeping Beauty, this seems to be the season of super-serious and arty investigations of prostitution. Here, writer-director and erstwhile novelist Julia Leigh spins the bleak tale of Lucy (Emily Browning), a gorgeous but somehow very desperate girl who ekes out a meager subsistence as office drone, waitress, lab-test volunteer and the odd trick. She answers an ad which leads her to Carla (Rachael Blake), the madam of a very classy bordello which caters to the very rich and powerful and lonely. Lucy is put through an arduous makeover, involving bikini waxing and a new wardrobe, all the while being assured by Carla that “your vagina is a temple—there will be no penetration.”

You might want to stifle a giggle hearing that last, but such is the overall queasy tone of this film, which endlessly proffers the outrageous and unlikely with the grimmest of poker faces, as if to say: “This here is one serious subject we must all attend to.” One supposes that Leigh is making some kind of statement about the modern world’s alienation which leads to this kind of cruelly bland exploitation of nubile female flesh, but it simply feels more exploitative than anything else.

When you see Lucy, doped and completely unconscious, being salivated over and pawed by various, panting moneyed geezers (all too willing to doff their kits for some sadly withered full Monty), it’s just freaking creepy. Blake, so good in Lantana, is rather amusing, in a deadpan way, in the kind of role that Judith Anderson would have had more fun with, but Browning, although as flawlessly beautiful as a Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model, or even the young Dolly Parton, whom she juicily resembles facially, plays Lucy with such an air of listless affectlessness that it is impossible to feel much of anything for her, apart from a vague sort of pity. She is dutifully put through Leigh’s paces, stripped naked, with her body being thrown about like one of those inflatable erotic doppelgangers, gagging during medical tests and vomiting, in a way to make you wonder about the desperation of talented, beautiful young actresses for work.

Lucy has a typically oblique relationship with a physically ailing friend, Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), which is supposed to tell us something about her capacity for human interaction. It doesn’t, and merely adds to the overall aura of mystery, aside from a very predictable, “shocking” ending, which merely amounts to a sizeable “So what?”