First published on 5 Jul 2011. Updated on 5 Jul 2011.
It’s been a while since I’ve hunkered down for a screening of an Australian film that hasn’t depicted a gaggle of sunken-cheeked unfortunates, chain-smoking at the kitchen table. You know; the sort of gruelling journey in which oppression looms large right from the opening frames (unkindly bleached by a blue wash), and realism is remorseless.
Sleeping Beauty, by contrast, bursts with rich colour, depth and opulence, providing a heightened sensory experience. The story, from author and first-time director Julia Leigh, is bold, imaginative and thought provoking. So why did some Cannes audience members walk out?
Because it toys with taboos, perhaps. Self-possessed student Lucy (Emily Browning), earns good coin by letting rich old men do as they will while she’s in a drug-induced slumber. It’s escort service taken to the next level, an idea that takes cues from both shunamitism (a practice that arose from the Biblical story of King David sleeping with a virgin to preserve his youth through her heat and moisture) and a gonzo porn genre in which actresses pretend to be unconscious. It’s an interesting concept when used to dissect the male psyche, but when ‘Man 2’ licks Lucy’s sleeping face and spits profanities at her, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Browning, let alone the character.
“Emily read the script and understood it,” Leigh says, “and she actually did not have any qualms about what she had to do because she knew it was in keeping with her character. It’s in no way exploitative of her. But at the same time, with all my actors I have a duty of care, to help them do their best work. I gave them the confidence and the space, and the feeling of trustworthiness. What a great performance from Chris Haywood, by the way. For him it was as challenging as for Emily. The thing I like about that character is it’s complex. He’s not simply brutal – he has a sense of futility.”
As an interviewee, Leigh is guarded. She will not, she says at a Q&A the night before, reference other films, filmmakers or influences. She will not be pinned down on record. She blanches, that night, at the mention of Browning’s other recent film, Sucker Punch, and sticks to some well-rehearsed lines when quizzed on plot or back-story.
We consider austere madam Clara, played by Rachael Blake whose mantra to her clients – “You are safe, there is no shame here, no one will see you” – absolves them of moral culpability. It’s a sadly familiar stance taken by brothel madams or mothers who turn a blind eye to abuse.
“I like that Clara gives a mixture of genuine care for Lucy, but ultimately callousness for what she’s prepared to do to this young woman,” reflects Leigh. “She brings her own sorrows and compromises to the table: poise and control, but also you might ask yourself, has she been in Lucy’s position before?”
Lucy, too, is far more a multi-dimensional character than you might suspect. “She’s in her early twenties, a time of life that isn’t always very easy. I see her as quietly and deliberately reckless. Her perverse provocation to the world is: ‘My cheek is turned, try me’. So if she’s passive, it’s a radical passivity.”
Stylistically, Sleeping Beauty is neither a period piece fairy-tale like The Company of Wolves, nor a whimsical paean to prostitution in the manner of Belle de Jour. In fact, it’s Leigh’s hope that you’ll never have seen anything like it before.
Being new to filmmaking, she would watch movies avidly to ascertain where the camera was, favouring long, lingering takes. If she were shooting a dinner party scene, she’d peruse other dinner party scenes. The exquisite fairy-tale touches – Browning’s porcelain skin and strawberry blonde hair fanned out in a stately home bed; red berries in her hand – are punctuated by startlingly ordinary details, like the mattress abandoned outside Lucy’s Sydney share house, or the Tupperware tub of rice crackers on her boss’s desk.
There’s much ambiguity – we know that despite having two regular jobs, Lucy is desperate for money; there are mysterious marriage proposals and a strange relationship with sickly alcoholic Birdmann that’s not nailed down – so if you’re the sort of viewer who needs their guesses to be rewarded with answers, you’ll be left hanging.
“Really? Hm,” responds Leigh. “To me the film makes perfect sense. I enjoy films where I’m involved with the film as it’s unfolding, and I’m asking myself, did I really see this? Does it really exist? I tend not to like force-feeding psychological explanations.”
Leigh becomes animated when I admit I felt unreasonably uncomfortable sitting next to a middle-aged man during the screening. “Oh yeah? Tell me, tell me. I’m intrigued as to how different people respond to it. What I’ve realised is there’s no such thing as ‘the audience’. The audience is made up of thousands and thousands of people and they’ll all bring their own bearing to the film and take away something different. My hope is that I have allowed people to use their imaginations, and I hope they haven’t been able to take their eyes off the film.”
The director’s prerogative is something Leigh is soon to experience from a different perspective, as her novel, The Hunter, is in production as a film, starring Frances O’Connor, Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill. “I had nothing to do with the script, but I gave the rights to my friend, the director Daniel Nettheim. Even though I had the opportunity to read the script or attend early cuts, I chose not to because my voice would have weighted too heavy in discussion – and also I’m not one for negotiating my own characters. So I chose to hand it over, although I did go to the set in Tasmania for a day. I’m just waiting for the moment I can be an audience member and experience that sense of wonder.”
Sleeping Beauty screens from Thu 30 Jun.
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