This REACTION contains references to the film Sleeping Beauty, which may dilute the impact of the film if you haven’t seen it. Please take this into account before deciding to read.
A beautiful young woman living in a state of disillusionment and disconnection from the realities of the world. Protected from a harsher life she stumbles into a dangerous situation, the consequences of which she is not fully aware, and is eventually brought into real life by an unexpected action.
This is a fairytale.
In the version many of us know it is true love’s kiss that brings the beautiful princess back to life. It can be taken as a metaphor for emotional awakening and growing to maturity from a state of innocence and naivety to realise that we can withstand the dangers of the world if we live happily within the accepted definition of happiness.
It is not an unattractive scenario.
Julia Leigh’s debut film Sleeping Beauty has attracted attention and reaction, both glowing and derisive, after premiering at Cannes, including the wonderful phrase “psychosexual twaddle”, which I find a touch too demeaning for an unbiased review.
I am a particular fan of Marc Fennell’s Triple J review, which states “It’s not necessarily badly made, it’s just a movie [pause for humourous effect] that hates you”. For the record I agree with almost all of Marc’s comments and find it a fair way to describe the film for a prospective audience of Triple J listeners, I just reached a different conclusion.
The film doesn’t hate us – quite appropriately, it hates itself.
Every character shows, in a variety of ways and degrees, dissatisfaction, disillusionment, regret and longing. The self-loathing humans can feel as a result of living in a perfect-image-based consumer society is evident throughout the film.
Friends who happened to attend the same screening as myself commented that all of the acting felt self-indulgent and overly pretentious – a statement I don’t disagree with. Rather than saddling the actors with responsibility, I suspect it is a result of a first-time director working with their own material leaning on what is, to them, the most important direction of the work.
I don’t think it’s a poor decision.
It lends the film a distinct style – the coldness and distance that Marc Fennell describes – that is offset at unexpected times by moments that insist on feeling different. There is warmth to be found – a glimpse of gilt edging a bed, the rich red of the wine that Lucy (our sleeping beauty) pours, even the luxuriant image of flesh in a vulnerable position that is otherwise confronting and disturbing in its’ eroticism.
All the warmth is found in Lucy’s possession, but she isn’t aware of what she holds. To emphasise her ignorance, almost every frame contains deliberate and overt sexual imagery – and possibly at this point my penchant for reading too much into a film takes over.
The way two women consider each other locked together in a bathroom stall; fingers delicately probing a payphone in search of change; the particularly clear scientific testing of a gag reflex; even a lingering shot of two identical doors, one open one closed, describes the illusions and expectations present in any sexual transaction+.
For my tastes it is a dense and intelligent exploration of sexuality as distinct from love and the disconnection we can feel in our lives despite living within a community that can support us. This is my opinion.
Why does a film attract negative criticism? Of course it may just be badly made; possibly it only aims for too narrow an audience – the blue rinse set or lovers of matinee musicals will likely never respond well to the work of George A Romero.
But sometimes we react strongly to art and stories, either positively or negatively, because we recognise so clearly the characters and situations they portray. The emotion that can overtake us in the experiencing of such material colours our viewing and our reaction whether we are conscious of it or not.
Emily Browning’s Lucy is a passive force in her own life. Aside from a few brief and beautifully unexplained theatrical scenes with Ewen Leslie’s tragic Birdmann, she relates to other characters through an idea of her own sexuality that is uncertain and dishonest. She is the princess in an ivory tower who isn’t forced (or indeed able) to deal with the world.
Every new step she takes to discover her sexuality and express it takes her further away from the real world – the fairytale she finds herself in, the life she thought she wanted, becomes more like a Grimm Brothers Fairy Story than the Disneyfied world of animals singing in harmony. Her reaction is self destructive and isolating – the common youthful cliché is ‘anything to make me feel’.
While only snatches of her life prior to the film’s beginning are offered to the audience, we understand Lucy has experienced angst and torment that has (we can assume) caused her retreat from the world. When she asks for all the details of her enigmatic fairytale to be laid bare and eventually awakens (the metaphor is physical too), the pain and torment she experiences as a result of her immediate assumption carries with it the force of a burst dyke of repressed emotion.
None of this is explained, but we feel it through Browning’s performance*. It is an unsettling and unresolved ending, despite the visual tag reminding the audience of what they already know – Lucy’s emotional realisation is based on a lie.
And now I shall read too much into this.
How many people live disconnected in some way from their world and the people in it? How many swear they are living the dream when they know, maybe only subconsciously, that they’re lying to themselves? How many among us have feared, in the isolation of a dark night, that we may never experience true happiness in love?
Our greatest fears are often that, in achieving our greatest dreams, our fairytale will be exposed as a hollow lie. Is it better then to accept a safe alternative and protest (too much) that it is happiness? To say so many times ‘this is what I wanted’, that you start to believe it?
And do audiences react so strongly to Lucy’s portrayal as passive in her own fairytale because they fear this reality in their own lives? If Marc Fennell is right, if the film does hate us, it hates us for accepting a second-rate fairytale.
It may not be a blockbuster actioner or a heartwarming rom-com, it may not be a touching story of an animated howler monkey, it may not be entertainment in any recognisable shape. What it might be is too much of ourselves. It is Hamlet’s mirror, held up to nature.
It is certainly a challenge for an audience, but every challenge brings a reward.
You just have to want to see it.
*Which is, in my opinion, stunning. She show’s amazing range with the smallest variation and beautiful simplicity. Plus, she’s gorgeous, which makes it much easier to want to support her emotional journey.
+Shakespeare puts it very well in Sonnet 129 – A bliss in proof, and prov'd, a very woe; / Before, a joy propos'd; behind, a dream. You should read it, it’s kind of excellent.
**This is a REACTION to Sleeping Beauty, in Australian cinemas now; as well as to Marc Fennell’s Triple J review of the film.