Like so many other quiet and tantalizing films, Sleeping Beauty announced itself with a gorgeous trailer and a submission to Cannes. This was during the spring of last year, but it wasn’t until late winter that it made it over to the States. Sleeping Beauty is the directorial debut of Julia Leigh, who we quickly learn has quite an eye. Leigh has two novels to her name, and it’s interesting to consider how this may have impacted her transition to the screen. This is in no way a classic tale. Leigh’s Beauty is troubled and sexualized, and we’re allowed to watch as she comes to understand how this impacts her otherwise common life.
Lucy, the titular Sleeping Beauty, is a college student with no less than a half dozen jobs. She scrounges for money however she can - she’s the girl who replies to those bizarre medical research ads on the coffee shop pin board. We quickly learn that she can’t make rent. This is something of a surprise - she has an office job and a serving job, and she operates a more illicit business that one might suspect is fairly lucrative. This all isn’t enough. She finds a position as the lingerie wearing host of a fine dining service. When she has free time she dabbles in drugs, but it doesn’t seem like she has all that much time to kill. Maybe Lucy has student loans to pay off too, but it’s hard to tell where all of her money is going. It’s also hard to tell why she’s even in school. She rarely goes to class, and the times that she does she tends to cut out early for some extra hours at one of her more illicit jobs. Lucy is presented as a college student, but she can hardly be considered this.
The film loves working with a sense of ambiguity. It’s easy to imagine Leigh’s writing background leading her toward this. In a novel one dabbles into a certain idea and lets it sit with the reader rather than bluntly showing it. But a novel allows for a slowed pace and rereading, and the author can deliver important emotional content through obscured metaphor. A character in a novel can remember a note that their ex left them, but in a film the character must dig that note out from their drawer. Leigh unfortunately leaves us far too loose from the details that we want and need. It’s left ambiguous as to whether Lucy charges for many of her encounters. That’s an interesting idea, but it’s something that we very deeply need to know to come to understand her.
Be it Miyazaki or Sofia Coppola, having a film speak loudly when the scenes are deliberate and quiet is always a stunning feat. Leigh works to channel this, but what results is a near mute main character. It’s difficult for us to learn about Lucy, and naturally that leaves the otherwise interesting aspects of her life unfortunately hollow. These pieces border on impossibilities as well - a meeting of classy old men being served dinner by women in S&M outfits work the limits of plausibility. Another time, in a fleeting boredom, Lucy burns a large amount of cash. These moments are difficult to accept, and it doesn’t quite manage the subtlety that the film is working toward. There are moments within Sleeping Beauty that, surrounded by stronger content, could work as simple and elegant ways to demonstrate Lucy’s conflicts. In one scene she gets out of bed naked and puts on underwear before returning to sleep. It’s a fantastic way to hint at what’s happening to Lucy’s sexuality, but we hardly know how Lucy feels about it in the first place.
Leigh has an impressive way with visuals for this being her first film. She loves long and steady shots. The camera tends to sit and watch as characters approach it. Often there’s an element of the room between us and the character, and this helps to lend scale to the room and create a sense of depth. The colors here are incredibly strong - one man’s hair is as white as his dress shirt. There’s a certain elegance to the world that Lucy exists in - there are patterns and fabrics. We can understand the feel of the wooden walls or the leather chairs. Leigh makes this all stand out to us, and it’s certainly the strongest aspect of her film debut.
For how prevalent this film’s sexual elements are, the camera takes a fairly asexual view of it all. This works off of the ambiguity that Leigh seems to like. The sexuality is viewed neither excitedly nor with disgust. Rather, it’s viewed with an indifference, as if we’re here to study these subjects. This may well best echo Lucy’s point of view. We aren’t given much by which to understand her, but it works off of what may be her most revealing line, “My vagina isn’t a temple.”
There are a lot of stories within Sleeping Beauty, but too much time is given to the sex work plot elements and too little is given to Lucy simply existing. This leaves viewers unable to connect with much of what is happening. Beyond this, given no compass with which to view them, the themes that Lucy’s sexuality speaks to are trivialized. There’s no doubt that when Leigh comes back to us it’ll be worth checking in with her. Leigh’s ideas are in the right place, but her execution has yet to fully adapt itself to the medium.