Sleeping Beauty (18)

A writer’s film is true to her chilling, taut prose style.

Sleeping Beauty (18)
dir: Julia Leigh

On the rare occasion that a novelist becomes a film director, there isn't usually much stylistic departure. Alain Robbe-Grillet didn't turn out to be big on screwball; Michael Crichton declined to embrace the weepie. The taut prose of the Australian novelist Julia Leigh (who wrote The Hunter and Disquiet) has been preserved in her first film, Sleeping Beauty. Leigh uses language parsimoniously on the page, with each word weighted for maximum tension or ambiguity, and she demonstrates the same approach to images.

The picture opens in a bright white laboratory - a joke, perhaps, in a work that draws much of its potency from keeping the audience in the dark. A young woman approaches the lab technician, who proceeds to feed a tube slowly and gingerly into her open mouth and down her throat. As the scene plays out silently except for the odd gagging sound, we scramble for context. The woman must be participating in a clinical trial, but even credible guesswork can't dispel our unease. The remainder of the film performs variations on the same effect. Leigh presents one disorienting spectacle after another and challenges the viewer to find within it meaning or reassurance. She sustains the mood of enigmatic discomfort far longer than is customary in narrative film.

Volunteering as a lab rat is just one of the ways in which Lucy (Emily Browning) bolsters her student income. She performs her other jobs (waitress, office lackey) with varying degrees of joylessness. With her red hair and porcelain skin, she is like a minimum-wage Botticelli.
At an interview with an escort agency catering to a specialised desire, Lucy is inspected by the madam, Clara (Rachael Blake), and her assistant, who are aghast to find on her perfect body a minuscule blemish. This nod to a similar moment of stifled comedy in Belle de jour reminds us that Sleeping Beauty isn't in the same class: it is in essence a cautionary tale, whereas Buñuel's film is remarkable for its constantly shifting emphasis. But, like that director, Leigh resists shaping her story as a parable of lost innocence. When Lucy addresses the lab technician as
“Dr Frankenstein", he calls her "Bad Monster". She looks world-weary long before the agency asks her to perform silver service waitressing in unorthodox attire. Let's just say it could end badly for her, should she spill the soup.

She offers her body for use in the first scene, and later tosses a coin to decide whom she will sleep with. She also acquiesces without hesitation when Clara renames her Sara. When the agency's USP is explained to her - it provides sedated women for the use of elderly clients in
a private chamber - this merely becomes an extension of her daily surrenders. The visits to her sickly friend Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), with whom she converses in gnomic in-jokes, are an exception. The movie guards from us the secrets of their relationship, yet insists successfully on its delicacy and warmth.

Lucy's behavioural choices are reflected in Leigh's aesthetic decisions, most obviously the fade-outs that mimic the slow drift into sleep. Her preferred camera movement, the gradual pan from left to right and back, feels somnambulant. (It also suggests the act of reading.) Horror in the film is amplified for being kept within this controlled visual style. When Lucy arrives at the country house where she is to be sedated, the camera follows her gaze to a woman who is being escorted, bleary and hobbling, to a waiting car. The agency forbids the penetration of immobile women, and requests that their bodies be left unmarked, but somehow this makes the options infinite and horrifying: the clients have to use their imagination.

A broader social malaise is being diagnosed here, but you don't have to buy the argument that we are all prone to the big sleep of self-deception to find this film spellbinding. Leigh's judgement falters once, when a glum businessman tells Lucy that, while some people fake their own deaths, he has been faking his life. Despite an abundance of troubling scenes, it was the only moment that made me want to cry out: "Too much information!" This aside, Sleeping Beauty is a convincing and original debut. Leigh need not give up the day job, but perhaps she will consider flexitime.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B