Forget the Walt Disney fairy tale when dealing with the new Australian film, Sleeping Beauty. There is a beautiful woman who sleeps here, but this is an adult drama about sexual taboos and deviant male behaviour.
Sleeping Beauty is set and filmed in Sydney. It is the directorial debut of Australian novelist Julia Leigh, also known for writing The Hunter, which is also now a feature film. The Hunter stars Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill, was directed by Daniel Nettheim. At least two other writers massaged Leigh's screenplay. The story involves a mercenary hunter searching for the last Tasmanian Tiger, or thylacine (which, in real life, is extinct since 1930). The Hunter has generated mixed reviews.
In the case of Sleeping Beauty, however, Leigh exercised total control. Especially because renowned Kiwi filmmaker Jane Campion, who now lives in Sydney, served as her mentor. So, for better or for worse, what you see in Sleeping
Beauty is all Leigh all the time.
This is a meticulously orchestrated film. It is superbly performed by the lead actress, Emily Browning, who is both excellent and courageous. Some might even think her slightly mad for taking on this role after Mia Wasikowska dropped out to tackle the title role in Jane Eyre. There are also striking support performances in Sleeping Beauty, especially from Ewen Leslie as the troubled yet gentle spirit Birdmann and Rachael Blake as the mysterious facilitator Clara.
So there is no problem with the cast. The issues I have run deeper. The film deals with the topic of sexual taboos in a transgressive manner that bends your brain. The whole enterprise may even be fraudulent.
But Leigh keeps you watching nonetheless as a college student (Browning) hires on with a deviant sexual service in Sydney. The gimmick is she allows herself to be induced into a deep sleep by Blake's Clara. Once she is comatose in a bed, a tawdry parade of odious male clients pay to do whatever they want to her body. With one caveat -- no penetration.
Creepy? Absolutely! Yet the film is never about cheap titillation. Instead, it explores the Beauty's willingness to surrender her body for monetary gain and perhaps even for secret thrills. More importantly, Sleeping Beauty examines male predators, albeit ones who ritualize their sick and twisted needs.
Personally, I do not believe the film reaches its apparent goals -- the plot is too disjointed to make sense of what Browning's character is doing -- but Leigh certainly is daring. Let the debate, which began at Cannes, continue to escalate.