In Defense of Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty"

An appreciative stylistic analysis of director-writer Julia Leigh's controversial debut feature.
Dan Sallitt
Sleeping Beauty

In the alternate universe that I seem to live in, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty is a comprehensively confident achievement by an important new director. In the real world, most of my critical cohort gave the film short shrift, dismissing it as strained or sensationalistic or empty.

There’s no percentage in getting overly defensive, but one good way to begin talking about Sleeping Beauty is to address the common observation that the film’s central character, Lucy (the remarkable Emily Browning), is too psychologically opaque for us to interest ourselves in her problem. It’s certainly true that Leigh chooses to retain some mystery around the existential torment that overtakes Lucy in the film’s second half. And it’s also true that Leigh is elliptical in her establishment of Lucy’s character in the first half.

But ellipsis is not the same as omission, and in fact Lucy is portrayed so precisely via telling details that we quickly have at our disposal a working map of her personality. Leigh’s dramaturgical sense is solid, even old-fashioned: she will not cast us into ambiguity until after we are standing on solid ground.

Lucy works hard to survive. We see her volunteering for uncomfortable medical tests, presumably for pay; waiting tables at a small restaurant; doing menial clerical work in an office; turning tricks in a swanky bar; attending college classes. Leigh presents the prostitution on the same level as the lower-paying activities: in all cases, Lucy keeps her composure and gets no obvious reward other than money. It’s noteworthy that the prostitution doesn’t drive out the other work: Lucy seems to have misgivings about going too far in that direction, though Browning’s performance doesn’t signpost this. Lucy’s survival instinct is opposed by more complicated ideations: she automatically checks the return slot of a pay telephone for overlooked coins, but, in one of her most extreme acts, ceremonially burns one of the bills she receives in payment from a lucrative sex job. The seemingly inexplicable gesture is undertaken with full awareness, as a private statement of value.

On the edges of society, Lucy conceals a hostile attitude behind a restrained exterior. She is nice enough to please people but scrappy enough to maneuver in an inhospitable world. At the subway station, she waits for a customer who will likely tolerate a fare evader, then squeezes through the turnstile with him without permission. Her contempt for her boss at the clerical job is expressed with perfect sang-froid: she lies baldly to her mother on the phone in front of the boss, and plays with the Newton’s cradle on the boss’s desk, while going through the motions of subservience ("Do you want me to lose this job?" she tells her mother in front of the boss). Her flatmate and she despise each other, and perhaps his hatred has basis: later, we see how she quickly turns her new luxury apartment into a disaster area. Likewise, in another later scene, we have no reason to doubt Lucy’s former boyfriend’s bitter assessment of the way she conducted the relationship.

Lucy retains a modicum of power through detachment and wit. Her composure is so practiced as to be automatic: she lies repeatedly and perfectly to her prospective employer/madam Clara (Rachael Blake), and doesn’t bat an eye when caught in one of her lies. Yet her sharp tongue and calm exterior, which encourage us to identify with her strong demeanor, cannot prevent the small and large humiliations that are part of life on the make. She easily bests her flatmate at verbal sparring when he insists that she clean the house’s bathroom a second time—"It will give me great pleasure to grout"—but Leigh cuts to her scrubbing tile. Likewise, she taunts the johns in the bar with her power to decide whether to sleep with them; and mocks the odd requirement of her new sex job that her shade of lipstick match the color of her labia; but must ultimately follow the script in both cases. Upon hiring her, the very proper Clara decides that Lucy will be renamed Sarah for the purposes of the job: having braved a humiliating physical examination with amused aplomb, Lucy freezes for just a moment at this liberty before agreeing. Her cool exterior is a defense, not the mark of a victor.

Perhaps Lucy seems opaque to many viewers, despite the great volume of psychologically revealing detail that Leigh provides, because Leigh doesn’t invoke the familiar mythologies surrounding prostitution. Lucy is neither a power to identify with nor a victim to garner empathy; she has a reasonable hope of enduring the hard knocks and coming out of the game enriched, as is her plan. The system she is navigating, too, is not depicted as rigged or cruel. Everyone who works in Lucy’s high-toned sex service is controlled and methodical, as befits a servant class; but Clara’s chilly propriety and penchant for comforting bromides is balanced by a small but seemingly sincere sympathy that expresses itself when not in conflict with the needs of business. Her wealthy customers have no need to flaunt their power, and generally conduct themselves with civility and even kindness. One egregiously brutal customer (Chris Haywood, a prominent Australian actor since the 70s), whose raging sadism cannot be confined to the bedroom, is quite likely to be shielded from punishment by his wealth and social standing; but the rest of his privileged class, and the business that caters to that class, endeavor to neutralize his malevolence. To my eye, Leigh’s social vision is both more perceptive and more artistically fertile than the popular truisms that she discards.

Leigh’s stylistic debt to Kubrick is clear from the film’s first shot, a static master shot of a white-on-white deep-focus science clinic. As is often the case with Kubrick, the dehumanizing aspect of the depth of field and the slight discomfort of the color scheme are coupled with behavior that follows routine and suggests a restraint on human vitality. (Another deep-focus set, the bar where Lucy turns tricks, features a different Kubrick lighting trope, a shadowed foreground against an illuminated background with lights glaring into the lens.) Leigh’s deviations from the Kubrick formula are also immediately apparent: the gentle, understated humor of the interaction between Lucy and the technician, and the alarming but funny moment where Lucy smiles at a joke while gagging on the balloon that has been placed down her throat, establish a polarity between the ominous visual plan and self-aware, amused humanity, a polarity that continues through the movie.

(For those whose senses of humor swing in Leigh’s direction, the film is frequently hilarious, with delicious dry wit that veers into the absurd. We do not know that Lucy is making a telephone inquiry about a sex job until we hear her answers to an unheard interrogator: "Red...slim...uh, pert?" Providing support for a lie to Clara about not being a drug user, Lucy deadpans, "My mother is an alcoholic with a violent temper. She runs an astrology hotline.")

Leigh’s emphasis on the routine, rigid aspects of social institutions within a Kubrickian mise-en-scène puts Sleeping Beauty in the realm of the horror film, just as all Kubrick films are effectively horror films (or are effective when they become horror films). Leigh’s precise visual style—she often leaves a scene immediately after its payload has been delivered, favoring formal self-awareness over narrative smoothness—conveys a chill, a distance, a nameless threat. Her pans are slow and methodical; her framing generally too distant for the image to be expressive of the characters’ feelings.

Whether Leigh allowed her style to dictate the subject matter or whether the style is a response to her material is hard to say so early in her career. But, on paper, Sleeping Beauty is already a horror story, with its plot hook—Lucy is hired for a peculiar sex job in which clients disport themselves with her drugged body—triggering a subterranean reaction in Lucy that disintegrates the hard surface of her competent, detached personality.

Though Leigh maintains the purity of her conception—Lucy’s existential breakdown is not represented via physical suspense in the manner of traditional genre storytelling—she structures the plot carefully to create a classical dramatic frame for the unknowable terror at the film’s center. In retrospect, the opening scene, with its calmly presented but unnerving medical procedure, seems to be Leigh’s decision to sound the film’s keynote rather than to lull us with an initial stability. After Lucy accepts her new job, a series of subplots gradually create around her an instability that is an objective correlative for her growing crisis: her close companion from times gone by, Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), enters the last stages of alcoholic collapse; her flatmate successfully evicts her, and she takes an expensive condo which she reduces to chaos in the absence of domestic constraints. The job itself, carried out in luxurious mansions with all the trappings of haute bourgeois culture, menaces Lucy at every turn—and though this menace is not the cause of Lucy’s growing anguish, it is a direct result of the total removal of control that torments her. Even when Lucy begins work for Clara by performing the relatively innocuous task of lingerie-clad table service, Leigh contrives a startling scene in which Lucy is violently tripped by the sadistic patron for his mere recreation. The other wealthy patrons and her coworkers show Lucy kindness afterwards, but this sudden tear in the fabric of a seemingly stolid environment is too shocking to forget, despite the lack of consequences. When Lucy graduates to the status of drugged bed companion (the customers are forbidden to penetrate her), each of the three sessions we witness puts her at physical risk, with the danger made more ominous by Leigh’s becalmed and implacable visual style. The gentle, learned aristocrat (Peter Carroll) who previously picked Lucy up off the ground after she was tripped nonetheless manages accidentally to turn her face down into the pillows, and Leigh ends the scene on the quietly frightening moment when the unconscious Lucy is finally able to draw deep breath again. The sadistic client, not content with his verbal abuse of the unconscious Lucy, places a cigarette burn behind her ear (which motivates a bit of deadpan comedy later, as the unctuous Clara is forced to revise her rehearsed patter to the customers to include a prohibition against leaving marks). And a third customer (Hugh Keays-Byrne, the Toecutter in Mad Max), eager to pick Lucy up like a doll and swing her around, loses his strength and drops her on the bed so that she narrowly escapes knocking her head on the floor.

As with the medical examination that begins the film, Leigh does not encourage suspense in these scenes: each close call has mitigating circumstances, and there is no clear suggestion that Lucy’s number will eventually come up. To the extent we can understand Lucy’s crisis—and it remains ineffable, purely psychic—we are aided, not by a narrative-based sense of danger, but by the very extremity of Leigh’s plot hook, which transposes the film into the key of the insolite; and also by the many placid but disturbing ruptures in the film’s style. These ruptures, such as the shock of Lucy being tripped by the sadist, or the many unexpected manifestations of sexual explicitness in the midst of mundane calm, create from the start a sense that reality is ready to go off the rails without notice. As Lucy becomes increasingly preoccupied by whatever her status as an unconscious object is doing to her head—at one point she is transfixed by a sleeping woman sitting next to her on the train, suggesting that the job is forcing her to look into the abyss of non-existence—the film’s mystery begins to invade her behavior. She buys her new condo sight unseen, a je-m’en-foutiste gesture so unusual that she must cover it up before the sales agent will sell to her (like the burning of money, this action marks Lucy as a closet anarchist); she proposes impulsively to a former boyfriend (Henry Nixon), who reacts to this cry for help with cold anger. Finally she precipitates what may be a real physical crisis, embarking on a drug-fueled night of abandon with a restaurant coworker immediately before dosing herself at her job with the sleeping draught, a pharmaceutical combination that Leigh had inconspicuously flagged as a medical no-no much earlier. In the film’s most dazzling quiet-loud style assertion, Lucy announces her symbolic suicide by unexpectedly raising over her head a restaurant chair, then slamming it at full force into a table—upon which impact Leigh replaces the stable image with a slow-motion, pixilated depiction of Lucy’s wild night.

The uncanny contrast between the Kubrickian quietude of Leigh’s mise-en-scène and the violence of this act also calls to mind another director: Preminger. If I were to name the film that Sleeping Beauty most resembles, I would choose Angel Face, another horror film in the guise of a social and behavioral study. Like Preminger, Leigh depicts horror by maintaining the icy composure of her style even as the narrative is setting off alarms. The organizing image of the film, unconscious Lucy awaiting her predators in a luxurious bed, is photographed from such a distance and with such symmetry that her body suggests nothing other than a corpse laid out for viewing. At the film’s climax, the drugged but desperate Lucy drags herself from this embalmed composition and crawls painfully to the side of the room to activate a recording device that she hopes will provide her with tangible evidence of her continuing existence. Leigh pans slowly and ominously in long shot with the walking corpse, refusing to infuse the chilled mise-en-scène with the urgency of Lucy’s mission.

Leigh opts to leave Lucy between worlds, ending the film with a postmodern flourish that cannot be resolved on a narrative level. (An earlier postmodern interlude, in which the gentle aristocrat stops the film for a recounting of the plot of an Ingeborg Bachmann short story, seems to serve the much different function of a commentary penciled in the film’s margins.) The bifurcated ending is far from fulfilling, but it’s difficult to imagine how a sense of fulfillment could do this film justice.

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