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…?”