It begins in a laboratory. White walls, quietude. The young woman enters, briskly signs a form, and lets the white-jacketed young man spray something in her mouth. Then she lifts her head and swallows his tube. “Thanks for this,” he says. He’s threading it down her throat, the camera now creeping smoothly forward. She’s hanging in there, stifling gags as best she can. “You’re doing a great job,” he says.
There is sensuality at play here, albeit rather detachedly. Something about the aestheticized tidiness of the lab, the politesse, the woman’s milky complexion. Not to mention her apparent servility. And the strategy of “Sleeping Beauty,” Australian novelist Julia Leigh’s directorial debut, is not to mention that. Whether we’re to read what follows as erotic fairy-tale deconstruction, feminist provocation, or inert art object, Leigh won’t quite bring herself to say.
We do learn that Lucy (Emily Browning) has several jobs — wiping down tables in a pub, making copies in an office, swallowing stuff in that lab — but apparently is not keeping up with her rent or student debt. There is an implication, possibly intentional, that really she’s more bored than broke. Lucy has one male companion, a shut-in with whom she occasionally shares stilted volleys of pleasantries. Sometimes things go a bit further, as when she fixes up a bowl of cereal for him by pouring vodka on it instead of milk, or he cuddles her and she cries a little and together they watch a TV show about tiny adorable marsupials.
Another scene, among some other men, features a sexual dalliance decided by coin toss, with the camera swiveling languidly back and forth as the ante rises. Is this a gesture of ambivalence, or one of coercion, by which the whole audience becomes a head-shaking scold? Later, it is with particularly inscrutable ambition, if any, that Lucy finally makes that call to the escort service.
Her supervisor there is an aristocratic madam (Rachael Blake) who enjoys pregnant pauses and wearily advises Lucy not to think of this as a career. That shouldn’t be a problem; unlike Catherine Deneuve’s similarly preoccupied housewife in Buñuel’s “Belle de Jour,” Lucy seems neither very curious about nor especially liberated by her new vocation.
Still, there are ropes to learn. At first the gig involves scantily clad service of luxe multi-course meals to tuxedoed geezers. Lucy’s colleagues seem more seasoned, maybe jaded, by the job; they have darker features and darker — yet more revealing — lingerie. It’s like the NC-17 version of an old Robert Palmer video. Except without the groove. Or like Kubrick: Being special, on account mainly of being our protagonist, Lucy finds herself promoted, and is soon arrayed in bed, carefully centered among symmetrical tables and symmetrical lamps and something unpleasant in the air. Here she’s subject to a drug-induced, dreamless slumber, during which the full array of creepy-old-man clients may do with her whatever they please.
Almost whatever. “No penetration” is the rule, and for Leigh that also seems to mean of the psychological sort. Only very rarely now, and from a meticulous distance, have we sensed Lucy’s inner life, and only as variations on the mourning of lost virility do the men even exist. One’s a blunt sadist; another, an archly soliloquizing windbag whose crisp eloquence surely would be enough to knock Lucy out if the tranquilizer hadn’t. Anyway, when she finally puts in a request for wakefulness, telling her boss, “I need to see what goes on in there,” the need seems inauthentic and impersonal, pressing only because the movie must progress. Not that it can, much, and so we behold a contrived catharsis, obliquely appended with an ashen coda.
As with other cultural experiments recently undertaken in adult-themed art-house fodder (see, for instance, “Shame”), the prevailing tone here is antiseptic. Maybe Leigh’s idea was for her film to seem to reek of chlorine, so as to suggest an overcompensating desperation about uncleanness. In any case, both the movie and its maker have been fittingly established by that first episode of unnerving medical research.
Notable for its avoidance of hectoring us about female agency and male gaze and all of that, “Sleeping Beauty” does not object, per se, to objectification. Casting its strange spell of passivity and pearlescent opacity, willfully indulging the predatory voyeurism that is cinema’s essence, and keeping its main character out cold most of the time, it is rather paradoxically a consciousness-lowering affair.