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Cannes | Sleeping Beauty’s Julia Leigh: “I like to get under people’s skin”

Cannes | Sleeping Beauty's Julia Leigh: "I like to get under people's skin"

Walking out of the initial screening of first-time director Julia Leigh’s Cannes competition film, “Sleeping Beauty” was met with a barrage of immediate opinions on the sexually charged feature – mostly negative. One Australian in the lobby said, “I can’t believe this came from my country,” while others simply dismissed it. Still, there was some strong applause after the credits rolled and indieWIRE’s own Eric Kohn gave the film a mostly positive review.

“There is a difference between a voyeur and a tender witness,” Leigh explained about the viewing experience of her film Thursday in Cannes. “Maybe I think the audience is more of a tender witness than a voyeur which has a shady undertone.”

And the audience is certainly given an eyeful with this film. The feature revolves around college-aged Lucy (Emily Browning) who possesses an ardent aloofness. She flips a coin to decide on a random sexual encounter and is seemingly accepting of her string of dead-end jobs. One day she answers an ad in her school newspaper. After an interview she becomes a lingerie waitress and is auditioned as ‘Sleeping Beauty,’ and is given “the role.” The work is very atypical. She is told she will be sedated and when she awakens it will be as if nothing ever happened.

Her new job is to sleep while wealthy old men have their way with her. The only rule is no penetration and “no marks.” Still, she is their object of manipulation and lust. The film graphically shows three encounters with one embracing her youth and beauty, the other is scolding and well, disgusting, and the other accidentally drops her limp nude body.

“I think Lucy is a nihilist and is willfully putting herself in danger,” Browning said of her character Thursday. Browning added that she and Leigh only had a couple of weeks to prepare ahead of shooting the film, and that Leigh had given her Lars von Trier’s last film to watch as part of the preparation.

“Julia gave me ‘Antichrist’ to watch. The idea of being that brave and giving that much to a role [was important] for the role of Lucy.”

Oscar-winning writer director (and Palme d’Or winner) Jane Campion served as a mentor for the production. Leigh said the project’s principal funder, Screen Australia, introduced her to the veteran filmmaker who was on hand to give advice and especially chimed in during the post-production process.

“Since I was a first time filmmaker they thought it was wise that I could ask questions from her,” noted Leigh. “So she read the script, though she was away during the shoot – but came in post-production. Many times I called her throughout. She gave suggestions on the filmmaking process and helped in the edit to give me the impression I was on the right track.”

Leigh seemed to acknowledge that “Sleeping Beauty” would probably divide viewers and said she embraces topics that are bound to ruffle feathers.

“I’m trying to get under people’s skin in a way,” she said. “I don’t like films that go in one ear and out the other. I hope it has a strong impact on the audience one way or the other. I hope [the film] allows people to use their imagination. The point is not to have a plot point to be shoved in their face. I hope the audience is thinking, what will happen next…?”

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G Meese

Preview Sleeping Beauty at Renoir London & Talkback. Julia Leigh, affable, about early 40s (?), bankrolled by legendary Jane Campion, opens with “explaining is like gouging out my own eyes” and “I’d invite you all to explore how complex works can have many many layers of meaning.” Warming, she explains her childhood fascination with the story, learning that the original SB was far more brutal, and how she wanted a dilemma somewhere in between: the idea of hiring or having a sleeping woman a man could use at will without harming (at least as a possibility). More interestingly, Julia remarks that during the filming, she sneaked into the projection booth and raised and tweaked the sound level and mix: “I am obsessed with sound, and sound varies in every theater venue; my ‘sound field’ in this film is critical.”

So the next time I view this, as I surely will when it opens in a week, I plan to pay way more attention to the way the director is working on my ears, because whoo, boy, did she and Emily and the eight or so other full-frontal naked women worked my eyes something fierce. On this voyeurism and Lucy’s apparent passivity (audience person asked), Emily said “no, Lucy is not passive—she is quite radical, with a willful recklessness, maybe because of her family’s use of her, maybe because she’s finding her power in going far beyond anyone’s assumptions about what she is capable of doing or enduring.” Asked about how she managed to play the totally compliant sleeping scenes, Emily says she has mastered a couple of different meditation disciplines, so she can just “go to zed, concentrate on breathing alone, and trust the director.” One has to believe her, because the indisputable bare proof stares deeply into our own visual complicity facing her inert flesh on the screen. Some in the audience seemed caught up in the long takes and the pressure it puts on the actors—isn’t that cinematic—but the next chewy morsel Julia expressed hits home: “I wanted to film so the camera is a tender, steady witness, where time is flexible, and viewers trust the cinematic information.” Exactly—I/we are held to this witness position (and if this were a psych lab, they would have locked our heads forward and taped our eyelids up so we could not miss a microsecond of Lucy’s being used in the conceptions of these men).

Now I was probably one of five or six people over 60 in the theatre, and we numbered about 200. The similarity of Lucy to the heroine in the Story of O or even the psychic role of women de Sade’s Justine was not troubling to me; I think Julia Leigh has realized her intent to have that camera indeed be tender. But Emily remarked in answer to one question that older people are seeking to reclaim their youth, that they see sex fading from their lives, and how sad that is. Well excuse me: this older person does not pathetically hope to regain his youth, to somehow be young by sexual proxy, to live a moment of mature physical intimacy by looking backward. NO! What makes the rich naked dinner scenes creepy is precisely because any person seeking to find a fountain of youth next to a sleeping youthful body—however gorgeously beautiful its form and warmth—any such person has not gained from their years one jot of perception nor compassion. No matter the age of my partner, I seek reciprocity of kindness, due regard for mutually induced pleasure, equality of standing and responsibility, and full recognition of my partner’s humanity—and my own (especially her or his good humor in medias and upon reflection days later).

So at least the leading woman, in her youth and possible ageism, has at least one concept wrong: that the young (and beautiful) have got a lock on passion, at least in its most mature conception. As director Leigh said, this complex film has several layers of meaning, and I would hope that Emily would awaken herself to those rich meanings that we codgers recall and hope for while watching her skillful repose.

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