Saturday 24 March 2012

Sleeping Beauty

Beauty’s Leap
Sleeping Beauty
Australia 2011
Directed by Julia Leigh
Revolver Entertainment Region 2

Julia Leigh’s debut feature Sleeping Beauty is, frankly, an absolutely delightful gem of a film and, quite possibly, a bit of a masterpiece too... though I probably misuse that word too much in the context of movies I really like and so am somewhat reticent about committing to that last conclusion.

The film tells the story of Lucy, played by the excellent Emily Browning (who was brilliant in both things I’d previously seen her in... as the little girl in Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events and as Baby Doll in Sucker Punch), who is a bit of an enigma of a character. She is both passive and assertive in equal measure... studying a course at university while struggling to pay the rent by simultaneously: waitressing at a cafe, working in an office, prostituting herself out to various men and woman, volunteering on a regular basis to have a camera shoved down her throat to take pictures from (I think that’s what was going on in those sequences) and then, as the film progresses, getting involved with an almost sinister form of organised sexual services.

As the film starts, she is seen having a tube put down her throat, which is kinda hard to watch, and all I can say is... if this is purely acting then Emily Browning is an acting genius (but I already kinda knew that) and if it’s not acting and she actually is enduring this stuff for her art... then she’s a pretty brave actress (and I already kinda knew that too... just the subject matter of this movie is enough to demonstrate her unflinching bravery to take on a certain kind of role). This, and another reminder sequence later in the picture, is intended to do two things and I have to give the writer/director absolute respect here that she managed to set up something about the character without me even realising it. One thing it does is to highlight that this girl needs money and will do absolutely anything to obtain it and the other thing, which was the covert one for me, is that she is used to holding tubing down her throat and can, therefore, hide things of a similar constituency there if the need arises.

After a while, Lucy joins an organisation, headed up by actress Rachael Blake, to take part in highly sexualised “parties” which, in the least invasive role in these beautifully decadent arrangements (which brought to my mind scenes involving Mr. Reindeer in David Lynch’s Wild At Heart), she has to very correctly serve drinks at a dinner party in her lingerie. There are some great little moments in the way she is prepared by the organisation to look exactly right for the, presumably strict, requirements of the aged male and female clientele of these sexual parties... such as having to have the shade of her lipstick exactly match the shade of her labia (which, of course, is what lipstick is all about anyway, when you go back to it’s original intention in ancient Egyptian applications and pretty much what it’s all about nowadays, in fact).

The job is extremely well payed, as is the next series of jobs she gets involved in for the organisation, where she is basically given a sleeping draft and is a sleeping, living sex doll (although the organisation allows no vaginal penetration or any marks from the clients) for pretty much the same ageing entourage from the sex parties (for want of a better description) we see earlier. The money is extremely welcome and needed (we see her celebration of the huge amount she is given for her first job when she burns a hundred dollar bill with a lighted match) but after she is marked by a cigarette burn, which I think she notices subconsciously in the back of her mind rather than by finding it implicitly, she begins to get a nagging curiosity as to what is happening to her when she... well... sleeps on company time.

I think that’s all I’m prepared to say about the story in this review because it’s the kind of film you absolutely have to discover and watch unfold for yourselves... but I will say that the direction it takes as it works its way towards the end of the film is very much set up by the lack of Lucy’s emotional reaction to the world going on around her. Not to say that she’s unemotional... her attachment to a character known only as the Birdman is established, I suspect, to show her emotional side so the audience can see her vulnerability as much as the strength of character she wears so eloquently on her sleeve. She is very much a character who suppresses these emotions, I believe, and reacts very calmly to the world around her as things which might pull the rug out from many are just seen by her as things she needs to quickly overcome.

The film is an absolute joy to behold, I have to say. Long, slow takes which are... well, they’re certainly not static, there is still a lot of camera movement in there but it’s very unassuming and all about following the characters movements or slow zooming in on them. There’s not very much in the way of projecting ahead with the camera to set up a specific establishing shot (most shots start in a cut to the main content of a scene without pre-amble) apart from in one great reveal shot (again starting off from shadowing the central character) in which there is a long slow pan to what she is witnessing, as a groggy and possibly damaged girl is helped into a car as she leaves the house where our main protagonist is about to enter... this works very effectively, I have to say, as it puts out danger signals to both Lucy and us, her audience, as it were.

The camerawork is almost, actually, voyeuristic in its window into slow digestion of the events as they happen, which of course really effectively pulls you in to an emotional investment in some of the characters and it’s coupled with a really passive lighting style, it seems to me. There’s no bright contrast in the colouration for a lot of the movie and... it’s difficult to put my finger on it here but there’s something about it which is not quite pastel tones and not quite neutral either. It would be wrong to say that it’s not in any way stylised, because it clearly is, but the whole thing is perhaps, after all, just a little more subtle than my primitive mind is able to digest in one sitting. One thing’s for sure though... if you like the visual aesthetics of directors like Andrei Tarkovsky and Wim Wenders, you’ll probably find it very easy to get into the beautifully laid back pacing of the movie and the clean compositions are just another reason to go seek out this film.

I should probably try to find some kind of fault in this film so I have something to actually criticise but, truth be told, I couldn’t find a single one. Even the ending, which reminded me almost of primal scream therapy for an emotionally repressed person, is absolutely perfect and the very last shot of the movie has implications for the main players which will resonate in your mind for a tiny while after you’ve finished watching. An absolutely hands down recommendation for me on this one. It’s hard to imagine anyone really having much of a problem with a film which, I’ve now decided having reached the end of this review... is definitely a bit of a masterpiece after all.

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