Emily Browning gives a daring performance as a young university student who lets the flip of a coin decide the outcome of random sexual encounters. In a spellbinding interpretation of the familiar fairy tale, Leigh’s directorial debut brings the viewer into a shocking world of clandestine sexual adventures with a bold, unwavering honesty.
Julia Leigh’s striking debut film, Sleeping Beauty, is a treasure trove of formal artistry and psychological abstraction. College student Lucy (Emily Browning in one of those bust-out performances) wears many hats—test subject, waitress, temp—until she gets a job working for a high-class firm specializing in erotic parties. When the money starts rolling in, Lucy’s life doesn’t change much; she simply becomes more fascinated with the dynamics of serving and being served. Her various experiences in the demented world of the upper crust take “sacrifice the body” to a new level.
Leigh instills a pristine antiseptic symmetry to almost every sequence, using static medium shots to put the process of domination on display. The camera only moves when Lucy’s role in these parlor games forces her to. During some of the more incendiary moments of female subjugation, Leigh lingers on what these images reveal about the older male characters in the film: weakness, impotence, and guilt. There’s a particularly devastating monologue midway through the film that showcases Leigh’s talent for uprooting conventions about mental and physical prowess. That Lucy inevitably becomes just as obsessed with the machinations of dominance as her employers shows that Leigh wants to make a universal statement, not one that’s gender-specific.
Maybe the most telling thing about Sleeping Beauty is its mastery of silence during the most provocative moments. A peaceful room is never trusting, and a calm demeanor almost always equates to a sadistic underbelly. The simple absence of sound unleashes more tension within whatever act of attrition is about to take place. While Leigh always keeps us at a distance from Lucy’s mental framework, we still understand her desire to be the controller, instead of the test subject. In a world this sadistically calibrated, curiosity doesn’t necessarily kill the cat; it just unveils a truth you never want to have dreams about. Sleep tight. -Glenn Heath Jr. Slantmagazine