Thursday, December 01, 2011

Not a Fairy Tale: Sleeping Beauty

For a part-time college job, the money is substantial, but the benefits are a mixed bag. Tired of waiting tables and serving as a medical research test subject, Lucy prefers gigging as a “sleeping girl.” At least she gets a good night’s sleep in Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s ought-to-be eerier Sleeping Beauty (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York at the IFC Center.

Developed under the mentorship of Jane Campion, whose name appears above the title as the “presenter.” Leigh’s filmmaking debut is a fairy tale only in the most ironic sense. The phenomenon at issue will be familiar to those who read Kawabata and Marquez or who knows what. Old men of means evidently pay handsomely for the privilege of sleeping next to drugged-out naked girls. There will be no intercourse, but whether that makes it more or less creepy is a question everyone will have to answer for themselves. For Lucy, it is a big pay day, so she willing accepts the work. Still, she eventually (if somewhat belatedly) becomes understandably curious about just what goes on when she goes under.

It is hard to give much of a toss about a character who is almost completely disinterested in her own well-being, but Leigh makes a credible go of it. She holds back Lucy’s backstory almost entirely, until rather late in the game, but allows her a sympathy-generating relationship with a dying friend named Birdmann. Yet, even this dynamic is drenched in enough sexual dysfunction to keep viewers uneasy. Emily Browning’s Lucy looks like a fragile orchid, making us predisposed to her right from the beginning, yet the film is so dispassionate, it borders on the antiseptic.

Frankly, Beauty’s clinical examination of what could easily be rather lurid material leaves it somewhat betwixt and between. We are clearly expected to be fascinated by this practice, yet Leigh deliberately de-mystifies and de-personalizes it. Indeed, there is very little character development in the traditional sense throughout the film, even with regards to its protagonist. Instead, it seems the audience is expected project their own assumptions unto her.

Though Beauty’s narrative structure is perfectly accessible, it has a relatively flat story arc. Ambiguity can produce exquisite richness, but here it just seems to lead to a sense of drifting ennui. Browning’s performance is undeniably brave, ultimately reaching a state of emotional as well as literal nakedness, but her motivation is never properly established, aside from money. Rachel Blake also provides an intriguing and sophisticated screen-presence as Clara, the manager of the mysterious agency employing Lucy, but she does not have much to do beyond facilitating the story.

Beauty has many provocative moments, but their cumulative impact is rather fleeting. Though an artful package, it is mostly hollow inside. For those fascinated by “sleeping girls,” it opens tomorrow (12/2), just in time for the holidays, at the IFC Center.