Cannes: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Has Sex, Nudity — And It's Boring

Julia Leigh's “erotic fairy tale” is haunting and disturbing, but it's not erotic, and it's a little dull

Much has been made of the supposed sexuality to be plumbed in Australian novelist and first-time auteur Julia Leigh’s "Sleeping Beauty." First, a teaser poster was released tantalizing the Cannes crowd with a shot of Emily Browning’s backside as she stared seductively into the camera. The film, which was the first of the 20 features competing for the Palme d'Or to screen, immediately shot to the top of everyone’s must-see list. The screening was packed, no doubt with many who were expecting to see “a haunting erotic fairy tale,” as the synopsis promised.  

Sleeping BeautyIt might be a fairy tale, and it is certainly haunting. But the one thing "Sleeping Beauty" is not is erotic.

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"Sleeping Beauty" tells the story of Lucy (Browning), a young university student who takes on various odd jobs to pay her rent — clerical work, medical trials. We see her explore her wild side with occasional snorts of cocaine, casual sex and eventually prostitution. The main thrust, if you will, of the film is when she allows herself to be drugged into complete sleep, after which an elderly man is brought into the room. He is given only one instruction: no penetration.

The movie’s true strength lies in these scenes, which are so provocative that they make the rest of the film seem all the more lacking. These scenes with the men are much more about our own imaginings than anything we see on the screen. What are we thinking these men are going to do to her? Would we ever do something like that? Is there an alluring quality about a helpless, sleeping person?

Herein lies Leigh’s gift as a writer and as a director: she is comfortable making us uncomfortable, hailing more from the school of David Cronenberg and Stanley Kubrick than Jane Campion. What she lacks in a definitive visual style she makes up for in moments of stark truth.

Browning works hard to bring some genuine feeling to this role, allowing her fragile, porcelain frame to be hurled about, poked, prodded, licked and groped — but even she seems sort of confused by the very story she’s trapped in.

That, too, seems intentional on Leigh’s part. "Sleeping Beauty" is a fairy tale — a wretched, stifling, horrific twist on the kinds of fairy tales we girls are raised on. Lucy looks like a princess. She’s even put to sleep like a princess. But the last thing she’s ever going to be is rescued by a handsome prince.

The film is riddled with reminders that this is a kind of fairy tale: before she is put to sleep each night, Lucy appears in a princess robe. Her madame is very much like a wicked stepmother — smooth-talking but uncaring. And then there are the so-called princes. Each one disappointing in a different way, somehow all letting Lucy down in one way or another.

The best thing about the film is how disturbing it is. The film’s biggest problem is how boring it is. Yes, even with a pretty naked girl, full-frontal male nudity, prostitution, drugs and casual sex, "Sleeping Beauty" turns out to be very slow and a little dull.

Perplexed Cannes-goers shifted uncomfortably in their seats, coughed loudly throughout, no doubt wondering when the eroticism would turn up. It is as though Leigh knew this would be the response and decided to have a little fun with her audience. That is a dangerous game to play, particularly with an already weary Cannes crowd expecting the film to deliver on its promise.

What "Sleeping Beauty" does best is show us a deeper side to Browning as an up-and-coming actress, as well as offer up flickering glimpses of a writer/director who has a definite point of view and a hell of a lot to say.

More of Sasha Stone's Cannes coverage can be found at AwardsDaily.com.