"More tea Sir?" Emily Browning stars in Sleeping Beauty (2011)
"Your vagina is a temple" asserts Clara (Rachel Blake), the chic femme bitch of Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty. "My vagina is not a temple" replies Lucy (Emily Browning), the protagonist of this perverse, Haneke-esque anti-fairytale. Actually, there are hints of Buñuel here too, and not just in the obvious Belle de Jour (1967) - glibly affected dinner table scenes appear to repress the middle-class satire of The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972), a trick Leigh woefully (if intentionally) misses. Instead she crafts a portrait of the doe-eyed Lucy, our titular sleeping beauty, who offers herself as an ornamental plaything for the self-destructive old men who endeavor to relive their youth through her doll-like comatose form.
It's an interesting setup, but Leigh's rigid sexual drama is too austere to engage, ultimately ending up as a series of cold, loosely connected set-pieces which never feel sure of their purpose; do they aim to titillate or disgust? The film attempts to illustrate the ethical dilemmas of paying and being paid for sex, highlighting the psychological implications and dangers of both, but Sleeping Beauty never dares to delve beneath its own pristine surface, undermining any attempt at moralising with its frequent and explicit nudity. Surely Leigh doesn't require that many full-frontal shots to make her point, if indeed she even has one?
What's worse is that I never really felt for Lucy or understood her as a human being, the reasons for which are twofold. The screenplay is woefully underdeveloped, preferring direction to dialogue, and it never presents the audience with a believable normality that Lucy can then shatter. We're privy to her enigmatic relationship with a sickly hermit named Birdman (Ewen Leslie), but their conversations never go anywhere or feel substantial. They are one of the film's more interesting elements though, because they at least feel somewhat real. The main arc never strikes a single believable note. But this is also down to Browning's laughably one-note performance (her reaction to a bedside companion during the final scenes is uncomfortably bad) which is so wooden that she may as well be a part of the furniture.
I was initially shocked to learn that Sleeping Beauty has been produced by Jane Campion, a director well regarded for 1993's mute period drama The Piano. But then I remembered her own atrocious erotica, 2003's dud Meg Ryan thriller In The Cut, and everything suddenly fell into place. Indeed, the more of its hand it reveals (do we even need to enter the sleeping chamber?) the less interesting Sleeping Beauty becomes. Ultimately Leigh's Fabergé fantasy is one of the year's worst films; adolescent, pompous and unforgivably boring. My final word? Belle de Shit.
Sleeping Beauty was released in UK cinemas on October 14th.