The film is not very violent but it is always entirely violent. It is only graphic but it is mostly symbolic. It moves slowly. Shots linger where they shouldn’t. We slip in and out consciousness, woozy and displaced from both the film and ourselves. Uncomfortable to be seeing what we are, how we are, surrounded by other anonymous people in the dark.
Watching this film is too much like being in it.
The film sees as its ‘heroine’ does, heavy soft eyelids framing every shot. Sometimes the fade to black and the black itself is longer than the image. Sometimes we wake up and only see Lucy scrubbing tables or collating files before the eyes close and screen fades to black again. She never seems to change her clothes. Sometimes we wake up and she is naked.
We know very little about Lucy. We see what she does but we are not party to her hopes, dreams, aspirations, or motivations. We mostly see the uncomfortable and anonymous parts of Lucy’s life that take place during her nights. These are the activities she keeps secret and separate from her public persona, both of her own volition and because she is required to by her contract. These hidden parts are what the film lays bare and presents for us. The film can also see what Lucy cannot, and so perversely has access to more of her private life than she does. Perhaps the film is Lucy watching herself, looking away from herself, or watching herself look away from herself.
From what we see of her days, Lucy appears to be productive: she attends university and she works two jobs. But her day jobs take possession of her body just as surely as her night job does, and she still constructs her behaviour to humour the dispositions of those around her. She does other people’s work. She stands and sorts papers ad nauseum as they are spit out by a copy machine. She cleans tables. She volunteers at a medical lab, where she allows a handsome young doctor to insert a tube down her throat. Always she moves her body to accomodate those around her.
Emily Browning is naked for about half the film, regularly stripped or exposed by herself or else by others. The camera moves over her body like a lizard on a window pane. There are several naked men, too: old, and fat or decrepit. The men grasp at what is no longer available to them, in a sort of sexuality of nostalgia or of loss. Maybe it was never available to them in the first place. They are pathetic, but they are also more powerful than anyone else in the film. It is an odd, weak, old power that is unimpressive but still holds control. Lucy’s entire employment situation appears to be for the benefit of these men. Perhaps it is orchestrated by their design. Here the film sees as the old white men do, gazing fixedly on Lucy’s body in a relationship that is simultaneously completely private and completely exposed, the very height of voyeurism and domination and submission. Perhaps Lucy submits herself to forgo the pressures of constructing herself for other people, letting them construct her for themselves.
Some of the most interesting sequences portray Lucy’s relationship to her friend the Birdman and to her ex-fiancé, both of whom Lucy asks to marry her. The difference in their reactions is off-hand but profound. It is like at the climax of Blue Velvet when Sandy’s boyfriend Mike tells her to shut up, echoing the earlier rage of the sadistic Frank Booth. It is the innocuous, every-day hollowness of Mike’s violence towards Sandy that reveals the power Frank holds in the world.
Roger Ebert said of Blue Velvet, “When you ask an actress to endure those experiences, you should keep your side of the bargain by putting her in an important film.” Thirty years later, Blue Velvet has proved to be an important film. Is Sleeping Beauty as significant? Does the film merit what its images show? Jane Campion certainly seems to think so. For those unfamiliar, Jane Campion is the director of The Piano, one of the hallmarks of mainstream feminist filmmaking.
Campion is responsible for “presenting” the film to us, and possibly for bringing it to Cannes. Sleeping Beauty is being introduced to us a feminist film. Some people won’t agree with this idea. Some will find it purely exploitive, and they would not exactly be wrong. Like works by Lars von Trier, it is challenging and uncomfortable. Sleeping Beauty refuses to give clear-cut commentary for its images. It takes you out of your comfort zone and refuses to bring you back. It will not allow itself to be made safe, which will be more than many people can handle. The refusal to make us comfortable with what we’re seeing or to offer resolution or closure for the images is the film’s greatest power and the crux of its meaning. Despite Lucy’s consistent submission, the film itself refuses to cater to any of our expectations.
Sleeping Beauty premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes film festival, losing the top prize to Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life.
The last showing is Thursday evening at 9:00 at the Metro Cinema.