Peter M Howard ::

Sleeping Beauty

12Jun2011 [movies]

Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty prompted a few responses, but the thing that came across overwhelmingly was that it’s a film about the construction of woman-hood. It’s about sex, and about gender, and about life and death, and about sleep and reality, and about affect and emotion and youth and identity. But at its core, we watch a character who is torn down and rebuilt, created as an object, as “woman”, subjected to everything from the scientific to the spiritual, and not even allowed to feel until the film’s end. And as the film develops, it becomes clear that we’re complicit in the construction of this character, both in the language of film (moments in which characters directly address the camera, or in which we’re as helpless to avert our eyes as she is helpless to react), and as a metaphor for the construction of sex and gender in society.

And it has a specifically feminine (or at least, not masculine) viewpoint: it deconstructs the “male gaze” by dragging us into the objectification at its core, becoming accusatory even; it fails to fetishise its subject, drawing everything anti-septically, even literally drawing attention to the most minute flaws when Browning’s skin is presented as porcelain. It’s asexual, but only as part of this deconstruction — there’s no sex shown, or at least, “no penetration”, mainly because the old men who literally “sleep” with the main character are incapable, but though she attempts to make some reclamation of her sexuality, the film denies her this.

Emily Browning is incredible, playing the girl sans emotion to the end, when she becomes woman (hear me roar). It’s tempting, and perhaps too easy, to compare this to her role in Sucker Punch, contrasting the agency she displays there with the complete lack of agency here. And one wonders about the differences between the films that mean Sucker Punch can be dismissed as misogynistic despite its attempt at empowerment, while the same couldn’t reasonably be said of this film. The obvious difference is that the earlier film still sets out to titillate, and to fetishise its subject, even if it does so in a rather studied manner. The two films together are ripe for further analysis, especially to illustrate the male gaze.

Browning’s career is certainly one to keep an eye on. The remainder of the cast aren’t great, but they serve mostly as background figures, almost deliberately one-dimensional, so the average acting doesn’t matter too much. Rachael Blake does a great job as the madam Clara though, cold but clearly caring both for her girls and her clients.

The film is beautifully shot. The light and colour all serve the tone of the film extraordinarily well, capturing a coldness throughout. And it features delightful sound design — it’s too difficult to call it scored. The film is unusually silent, with minimal background sound throughout, no musical cues. I recall only one moment which featured external sound, a loud discordant piano noise over an unusually dramatic cut. The silence just adds to the unease in watching the film, to great effect.

All told, it’s perhaps a little too affected at times, and it’s somewhat gruelling to watch, but there’s an awful lot there, lots to unpack. Some reviewers have noticed that the film seeks to confront its audience, but have criticized it because it fails to do so in the manner in which they expect — I gather these expectations are for something like Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, something visceral. But Sleeping Beauty makes no claim to be visceral, and this can make it even more difficult to watch: we’re forced to confront our expectations about the representation of sex and of woman. And it doesn’t give us an out; there’s no easy answer, no way to excuse ourselves from our role in the social construct.

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