Friday, December 16, 2011

Once Upon a Bad Dream: SLEEPING BEAUTY

Australian novelist Julia Leigh makes a strong, but ultimately fairly empty, provocation of a filmmaking debut with Sleeping Beauty. It’s a stereotypically artsy film, filled with long, quiet master shots that let disquieting monotony slowly drip by. The opening scene finds a young, broke college student (Emily Browning) showing up to a sterile campus lab to earn a little extra money as a human guinea pig. The scientist thanks her for coming and proceeds to slide a plastic tube deep down her throat. It’s a nearly silent scene, save for her sudden neck spasms, her eyes clenching shut with accompanying, horrifying, gagging noises. That’s the film in a nutshell, a cold, quiet film with intermittent reasons for gagging.

Aside from participating in these experiments, the girl, a pale, thin, smooth waif of a young woman also works sorting papers and making copies in an office and in a third job waitressing. She’s a girl of fragile strength. She’s behind on her rent and struggling with her finances. She sets up a job interview at a secretive company. There, the owner tells her that they have young women dress up in lingerie to cater and serve at exclusive events. The company pays their girls hundreds of dollars an hour. “Please don’t make this a career,” she’s warned. She takes the job.

She does her job well, made up and dressed up to look like a perfect objectified female figure. She looks creepily vulnerable and so very young. But she pleases her bosses. The clients must be happy. The company offers her a promotion. She’ll drink some tea laced with a compound that will cause her to enter into a deep sleep. Then she’ll simply lie in a bed while men pay for the privilege to sit in the same room as a sleeping beauty. It’s all perfectly harmless. There will be no physical intimacy. The boss has already assured her that her “vagina is a temple.”

It is lines like that that had me half sure the film was just a biting, straight-faced satire of economic conditions and societal pressures of the young, beautiful and aimless. How could anyone write, let alone say, such a line and not expect it to be greeted with a the kind of half-laugh that sticks on the roof of the mouth in an attempt not to break the silence in the theater? The film is so deadpan and calm with its long master shots and dialogue spoken at a volume just this side of a whisper that it’s sometimes hard to puzzle out the intent behind the clinical compositions that are hardly hiding the underlying upsetting nature of the events presented. 

It’s clear that Leigh is making a statement against objectifying women, against commodifying beauty. If it were presented any clearer it would be bludgeoning and the restraint shown is certainly preferable to the leering male gaze burlesque of something like Sucker Punch (which, coincidentally, also stars Emily Browning). Leigh has a remarkable sense of the visual space of the screen with her just-so compositions that the camera holds steady, regarding for minutes at a time. There’s so little cutting going on that each scene plays out with total stillness in what are more or less unbroken takes. It’s the banality of the unease that make it all the more chilling.

The problem here is that the anti-objectification message is ultimately obfuscated by the way that the film itself treats Browning as an object, as just another piece of the art puzzle slowly pulled together with every passing scene. She’s not playing a character; she’s playing an idea. Who is this girl? She’s going to school, but what for? She seems to know her landlord. How? Her mother calls her office job and we hear only the daughter’s side of the conversation. She’s reciting her credit card number. Why? We never learn anything more than superficial things about her, much like we never learn anything more than the bare bones of the nature of the company providing her unique services, and we certainly don’t get access to the inner lives of any of the clients or the other girls in their employ.

Clearly, such emptiness is intentional. I don’t bring it up as if it were a mistake. I didn’t sit there saying “Oh no, they forgot the characterization!” I bring it up to object to the approach itself. Browning attracts sympathy towards her character with her open face that seems to carry a heartbreaking vulnerability with a dark secret stewing underneath and a matter-of-fact acceptance of her lot life that makes you hope she’ll find her way out of her situation. But the film is only interested in exploiting this performance instead of utilizing it. She could be a great asset to the film, a psychologically wounded beauty, but she’s only used for the visual element she brings to the film. She’s there to have a tube shoved down her throat, for creepy old men to loom over her, for the dull, gray city, and secretive business, the very mechanisms of commodified femininity, to oppress and take advantage of her. Which makes the film’s point, I suppose, but I wish I could have cared more about the plight of the character instead of spending the run time questioning and growing angry with the film’s approach.

1 comment:

  1. I hadn't seen or heard of this film until reading this review, but it gets at something I've been noticing. Perhaps perceived as an antidote to the supposed overheated emotion and manipulation of Hollywood films, a lot of art films have been distancing them from their characters, trying to cultivate a "we can't know them" vibe. Yet this actually dovetails with the worst quality of mainstream movies these days: the penchant for oversimplification and streamlining, so that characters and situations are symbols and signifiers rather than detailed, complex, flesh-and-blood. I think both mainstream and art films are complicit in the way movies seem less naturalistic (think how, even in the early Spielberg blockbusters, the screen hums with background detail and eccentric character touches, whereas today big movies and often little movies too are all broad strokes). It sounds like that might be what's happening here.