On paper, Sleeping Beauty makes sense for Emily Browning. After shaming her good name so utterly in the completely ridiculous Sucker Punch, it stands to reason that her follow-up would be the kind of film dripping with Take Me Seriously. And, to be absolutely fair to her, that’s exactly what it is. Browning’s performance in the extremely problematic Sleeping Beauty is damned interesting; partially because she does lots of good acting in it, but mainly because every bloody scene seems to be set up as an endurance test for the young actress. You name the deeply unpleasant thing she has to do – gag on a tube going from her mouth to her stomach, get her face licked by some dodgy old geezer, get dragged unceremoniously and unconsciously across a bedroom floor – Browning’s there. And she’s naked. If there’s one conclusion to be drawn from Sleeping Beauty, it’s that Emily Browning is not messing about.
So, the beautiful young lass plays Lucy, a beautiful young lass who has some serious, vague problems. The kind of serious, vague problems that beautiful young lasses only seem to have in films like Sleeping Beauty. Lucy is broke, she’s waif-like, she’s friendless, parentless and is exhausted from working as a waitress, secretary, scientific testing subject and penis receptacle just to make her studenty ends meet. When she finds an ad for some job with “FATTOS NEED NOT APPLY” (or whatever) written on it, she uses her last pennies to call up the mysterious company and meet with a well-dressed woman in a room full of nice chairs. The job, unsurprisingly, is to titillate gentlemen via the means of shedding clothing, and having been doing far more than that for cash, Lucy’s cool gaze doesn’t flicker upon accepting the post.
To begin with it’s simply serving the odd glass of wine to a room full of old men whilst wearing nice pants – everyone’s having a great time – but with rent always due young Lucy soon hankering for more. And besides, seeing as her new madame has already promised her that “(her) vagina will not be penetrated”, what’s the harm in seeking out a bit more responsibility? Accepting a new role where she is drugged, put to sleep, STUFF HAPPENS and then she wakes up none the wiser, Lucy is caught between being grateful for the windfall and traumatised by the mystery. Add in a suicidal companion who just wants to see her naked, a work colleague who just wants to see her naked and all the old men who, it turns out, get to see her naked, and no-one can blame poor Lucy for inching closer to breaking point…
A little Von Trier-y, a little Sofia Coppola-y, Sleeping Beauty is one of those films that will divide opinion depending on what you get your kicks from. The cinematography is cool, calm and unfazed by the increasingly unpleasant action it focusses on; unforgiving in showing us desperately uncomfortable acts (the “sleeping beauty” scenes themselves are pretty mind-itching) and maintaining a firm emotional distance from Lucy and her slow descent into despair. It’s all very poised stuff, beautiful to look at and grotesque where it should be, but the problem is that the story it points at with seeming disinterest is just that: uninteresting. The plot, such as it is, is paper-thin, the characters drawn too lazily to keep you interested and is, for the lack of any better way to put it, utterly dependent on your own desire to watch unpleasant things happen to a naked Emily Browning.
Its self-consciously repetitive scenes (naked, unhappy, dressed, repeat) are doused in heavy importance, dragging the already sombre pace to an almost unbearable speed and rather than trying to build to any kind of climax, the film simply ends with an air of a project embarrassed to have come this far without a point. Browning is to be commended for her bravery in taking on such a difficult film, but, like poor old Lucy, you can’t help but wonder whether anyone cared much about anything besides how it all looked.