Akin to the work of Michael Haneke and Catherine Breillat, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty is an exercise in technique and observation. With its static medium shots and relative silence, Sleeping Beauty is the sort of picture that allows you to admire the formal and aesthetic sensibilities on display while immersing you in a lurid world of sexual domination. A divisive film (the audience that I watched it with responded negatively upon its conclusion), Sleeping Beauty’s rigid formalism is certainly not for everyone –it tested my patience .What Sleeping Beauty lacks is a sense of naturalism in its direction, which is perhaps my biggest quibble with the film.
Lucy (Emily Browning) is first seen having a medical balloon inserted down her throat. She makes ends meet by working at both an office and as a waitress. Her routine activities rarely amount to anything exciting; she even takes her sexual encounters with a passiveness, wherein she allows a man to flip a coin to determine whether or not they’ll sleep together. Upon responding to an ad, Lucy finds herself making much more money working erotic parties in the spirit of Salo. But her passiveness and relative neglect to the world continues, even as she becomes more involved with her upscale employer – she eventually takes a "magic potion" that puts her to sleep, allowing men to take her advantage of her during her comatose-state. The mantra of the arrangement is repeated with the utmost concern every time: no penetration. But as Lucy explains to her boss from the onset, her vagina is not a temple.
Sleeping Beauty’s rich visual palette comes across as surprisingly artificial and devoid of a human element. In a way, the precision involved is akin to Eyes Wide Shut, but even then, it seems like a case of mimicry over building an aesthetic for the material itself. The world in which Leigh creates is one entirely devoid of human emotion, so it’s surprising that I actually felt a great deal throughout the film. It’s largely due to Emily Browning, who reminded me of Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience; the two touch upon a similar sense of sexual disconnect with the world, though Browning does eventually have a moment that allows her to punctuate her detachment.
What I value above all in Julia Leigh’s film is that it does an admirable job of addressing notions of sexual domination and the value one bestows upon sex. It’s amusing that there seems to be so much value on sex placed on by the men of the film; they all represent varying concepts of guilt and envy. On the other spectrum, all the women of the film value sex with ambivalence, with a very direct link between sex and money. In a crucial scene, we see Lucy burn a bit of the money that she makes from her escapades; there’s no value in it.