By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 11, 2011 at 11:08AM
In an early scene of Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty," the proprietor of a high-end prostitution operation orders Lucy (Emily Browning) to strip down to her underpants, at which point the mistress and her assistant aggressively fondle nearly every inch of the young college student's body. Their hands roam across her trim physique, pausing briefly on the slight remnant of a mole, while Lucy observes their evaluation with a coldly tolerant look. It's hardly the last time she gets treated like a rag doll in Leigh's undeniably creepy - if supremely beguiling - sexual thriller about the realization of dark urges.
Following Lucy as she becomes drawn into the prospects of the eponymous sexual fantasy, "Sleeping Beauty" takes a long time to cast its spell. Dominated by long takes and pregnant pauses, the movie takes its cues from Lucy's constantly sullen, cryptic expression. Leigh, an Australian novelist making her big screen debut, relies almost entirely on insinuative behavior to provide exposition. Lucy's ongoing perceptiveness moves to a new level when she responds to an advertisement that finds her auditioning for the lead role in a sex game. The requirement: She imbibes a drug that puts her to sleep while paying customers do what they want with her limp body. The only rule, according to the tough manager Clara (Rachael Blake), is no penetration. But that's not a problem for the men who abuse Lucy, since they're all withered and impotent.
In establishing this scenario, "Sleeping Beauty" develops a strange visceral edge. "Your vagina is a temple," Clara tells Lucy, who looks shocked. "My vagina's not a temple," she shoots back, as if pining for abject treatment. Despite that eagerness, she gets more than she bargained for: Auditioning for the sleeping beauty gig, she first works as a lingerie waitress in a curiously highbrow dining hall, where she serves booze in her underpants alongside grave-faced women clad in revealing costumes that squeeze their breasts like mini-corsets. The scene resembles something out of a Matthew Barney movie, but with a specific dimension of psychological exploration, as "Sleeping Beauty" develops into an increasingly bizarre study of voyeuristic urges.
There's plenty to mull over in these eccentric details, although Leigh lacks the prowess to connect the various strands of Lucy's personality that might have given the movie a greater emotional impact. As an elaborate, unnerving character study, however, it has a uniquely puzzling effect. Lucy's behavior comes from a logical place, even if we only see parts of it. She leads a compelling double life, spending time between gigs attending to a deadened office job, wasting her days in the classroom and hanging with her alcoholic buddy Birdman (Ewan Leslie). Leigh never sufficiently explains the origin of their offbeat relationship (save for a passing reference to Lucy's mother also being a heavy drinker). Leigh's screenplay, which was on the Hollywood Black List three years ago, admirably turns to extensive visuals in place of dialogue to form the backbone of its plot.
Endorsed by no less than Australian cinema icon Jane Campion (which may explain its spot in the main Cannes competition), Leigh's first time behind the camera bears a vague similarity to Campion's own debut, 1989's "Sweetie." Lucy's willingness to offer her body up to perverted men makes her into a different kind of beast than the incestuous lead in Campion's film - although in both cases, the girls enthusiastically invite danger into their lives while the camera watches them closely. Like Sweetie, Lucy is destined to hit a wall. Browning, up until this point mainly known for her roles in "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" and "Sucker Punch," proves herself capable of far subtler, disquietingly mature material here. She manages to sustain the story through its drier moments.
The most unforgettable scenes of "Sleeping Beauty" take place in the chamber itself, during a trio of incidents where elderly men toy with Browning's nude body, cussing her out and sometimes inflicting damage. Leigh shows viewers the events she can't know about in her unconscious state, which makes her curious expressions each morning after imply the suspenseful possibility that she might try to uncover the horrific details. Leigh engineers each scene in such a way to create extreme dread. The tragedy that takes place in the final minutes is unfortunately undercut by her persistently cerebral approach. Still, there's nothing fairylike about this haunting tale, which maintains a dreamlike feel even when its adventurous protagonist wakes up.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Browning's performance is bound to collect accolades even though the movie will scare off a lot of audiences and distributors, and Leigh (who has several other projects in the works) has firmly put herself on the map as a director to watch.
criticWIRE grade: B+