It begins in a laboratory. White walls, quietude. The young woman enters, briskly signs a form, and lets the white-jacketed young man spray something in her mouth. Then she lifts her head and swallows his tube. "Thanks for this," he says. He's threading it down her throat, the camera now creeping smoothly forward. She's hanging in there, stifling gags as best she can. "You're doing a great job," he says.
There is a sensuality at play here, albeit rather detached. Something about the aestheticized tidiness of the lab, and the woman's milky complexion -- not to mention her apparent servility. The strategy of Sleeping Beauty, Australian novelist Julia Leigh's feature film directorial debut, is not to mention that. Whether we're to read what follows as erotic fairy-tale deconstruction, feminist provocation or inert art object, Leigh just won't bring herself to say.
We do learn that Lucy (Emily Browning) has several jobs -- wiping down tables in a pub, making copies in an office, swallowing stuff in that lab -- but apparently is not keeping up with rent or student debt. Evidently more bored than broke, it is with particularly inscrutable ambition, if any, that she finally makes that call to the escort service.
Her supervisor there is an aristocratic madam (Rachael Blake) who enjoys pregnant pauses and wearily advises Lucy not to think of this as a career. That shouldn't be a problem; unlike Catherine Deneuve's similarly preoccupied housewife in Buñuel's Belle de Jour, Lucy seems neither very curious about nor especially liberated by her new vocation.
Still, there are ropes to learn. At first the gig involves scantily clad service of luxe multi-course meals to tuxedoed geezers. Lucy's colleagues seem more seasoned, maybe jaded, by the job; they have darker features and darker lingerie. It's like the NC-17 version of an old Robert Palmer video, but without the groove. Or like Kubrick: being special, on account mainly of being our protagonist, Lucy finds herself promoted, and is soon arrayed in bed, carefully centered among symmetrical tables and symmetrical lamps. Here she's subject to a drug-induced, dreamless slumber, during which the full array of creepy-old-man clients may do with her whatever they please.
Or almost whatever. "No penetration" is the rule, and for Leigh that also means of the psychological sort. Only very occasionally now, and from a meticulous distance, have we sensed Lucy's inner life, and the men exist only as variations on the mourning of lost virility. One's a blunt sadist, another an archly soliloquizing windbag whose crisp theatrical eloquence surely would be enough to knock Lucy out if the tranquilizer hadn't. Anyway, when she finally tells her boss, "I need to see what goes on in there," the need seems pressing only because the movie must progress. Not that it can, really, and so we behold a contrived, oblique catharsis, appended with an ashen coda.
Notable for its avoidance of hectoring bullet points about female agency and male gaze, Sleeping Beauty does not object, per se, to objectification. Casting its strange spell of passivity and pearlescent opacity, willfully indulging the predatory voyeurism that is cinema's essence, and keeping its main character mostly out cold, it is rather paradoxically a consciousness-lowering affair.
As with other cultural experiments recently undertaken in adult-themed art-house fare (see, for instance, Shame), the prevailing tone is antiseptic. Maybe Leigh's idea was for her film to seem to reek of chlorine, so as to suggest an overcompensating desperation about uncleanness. She won't bring herself to say. In any case, having begun with an episode of mysterious medical research, Sleeping Beauty has at least established itself and its maker well.
Sleeping Beauty opens at the San Francisco Film Society Cinema on Friday, January 27, 2012. For tickets and more information visit sffs.org.