NZIFF ’11: Sleeping Beauty

nziff ’11: Sleeping Beauty
dir. Julia Leigh | Australia | 2011 | 101 mins.

The Tree of Life may have been the most audacious thing I’ve seen thus far at the festival—Melancholia is still to come, but Sleeping Beauty comes surprising close. The début film by Australian novelist Julia Leigh proves much more than the psycho-erotic thriller it’s been advertised as.

Early on, the film reveals itself to be a slow-moving clinical character study of a college student, Lucy, who works two jobs, and has shitty flatmates and an even shittier on-again/off-again boyfriend. Things change when she responds to an ad in her student paper and is taken into a world where lines like, “Your vagina is a temple” and “No penetration” are just part of the job.

As Lucy, Emily Browning finally proves herself as an actress. She straddles the line between girl and woman with a childlike innocence occasionally tempered with an adult’s disaffection with the world around her. It’s a starmaking performance that completely washes out the bitter taste of Sucker Punch. Beyond the nudity (of which there is a lot), Browning’s vulnerability and bravery in the role shows us a woman taking control of her life in whatever small way she can.

This is a deeply political film; it has a lot to say about how sex is treated in the Western world, and about how men and women relate to sex. The character of Lucy is constantly objectified by the men in the film; the most disturbing scene in the film comes when she does tests for a fellow science student and chokes for an excruciatingly long time.

Leigh takes pains to take the eroticism out of sex in this film: it is never shown, and the lead up to it is stilted and calculated. In some of the more extreme scenes, men are utterly powerless as they desire Lucy but are forbidden to do anything with her, they can merely meander and plod around her. However, the film makes the strongest statement, both politically and emotionally, with a repeated shot of Lucy lying asleep in her bed in the dead centre of the frame. Although she appears vulnerable, she dominates the frame and all those that look at it. Many parts of the film are still running around in my head a day later, but none moreso than this shot.

Daring and dazzling, Sleeping Beauty positions Julia Leigh as a talent to watch. She transcends her novelist background with one of the most visually ravishing films of the festival (though props should also be given to the cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson and the production designer Annie Beauchamp for the chilling palette they helped create). Perhaps most important of all, it is obvious that Leigh is a director with a clear sense of what she wants to say, and a deep understanding of the psychology behind her troubled, fascinating characters.

The New Zealand International Film Festivals began on July 14 in Auckland; they start in Wellington on July 29, then travel to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, and Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, Kerikeri in November.

Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.

For more reviews, browse the “New Zealand International Film Festivals 2011
tag on this site, and check the Twitter hashtag #nzff.