Bright Lights Film Journal

Dream Story: Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty

“The Story of O and Traumnovelle are two tales of outrageous sex that nevertheless come across as lulling and gentle. Sleeping Beauty deserves to be ranked with those works, in its depiction of a world of sexual transactions touched by magic.”

Filmmakers have often struggled to make Australian cities seem compelling; in movies, images of Melbourne and Sydney tend to appear all too loose and unstylized, lacking the grip and tension of fiction. This may be the reason why Australian cinema has frequently turned to genre: pulp and crime films carry an inbuilt drive that precedes the telling of any given story.

Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011) is an anomaly: it is a non-genre film that invests the image of Sydney not only with fictional depth but with mystery. Lucy (Emily Browning) resides in a city of part-time jobs, share houses, and public transport; however, her everyday life contains links to the world of symbolism. The fact that we discover mythical forms within this commonplace reality is no great surprise. This is because Leigh is a meticulous stylist: even though the film’s events may be shocking, its tone remains softly sweet and inviting. It has a limpid quality more commonly found in novels than in films: for instance, The Story of O andTraumnovelle are two tales of outrageous sex that nevertheless come across as lulling and gentle. Sleeping Beauty deserves to be ranked with those works, in its depiction of a world of sexual transactions touched by magic.

The structure of Leigh’s film resembles the stories of Jorge Luis Borges and Ingeborg Bachmann, in that there are constant sideways glances into other narratives; one character recites a premise from Bachmann’s The Thirtieth Yearwhile the camera peers curiously into his face. There are always these quick glimpses of fictional openings, potential corridors we might go down: one of the most intriguing is a short scene where Lucy’s tutor uses a Japanese board game to solve a philosophical puzzle.

As in Sucker Punch (2011), Browning plays a slightly soiled innocent, a student who is paid to be the drugged companion of men. At night she sleeps beside her clients; there is no penetration, although we see her body being caressed or roughly treated (the latter is against house rules). Yet even during these scenes, the mood remains delicate and tender; each fade is perfectly timed to sustain a quiet feeling of eros. One only needs to compare Sleeping Beauty with Ana Kokkinos’ The Book of Revelation (2006) to realise what Leigh has achieved here. Kokkinos’ film is a very literal retelling of the Rupert Thomson novel; it shows us strange and violating sex acts, but there is nothing in its tone to make these events seem alarming or less than silly.

Sleeping Beauty contains obvious references to literature and art, but it is never precious; the film has a mystique that is not interrupted by the appearance of, say, a grumpy roommate or an electronics store. This is not about imposing a fairytale structure on the real world, which would be all too easy: here, the fable is of the same tempo and consistency as a regular day in the suburbs. If the sight of Lucy on a quilt recalls one of Paul Delvaux’s reclining nudes, this represents a moment where the ordinary happens to coincide with the mythic, rather than an adherence to a rigid format. The most erotic scenes are those that are relaxed and unremarkable: when Lucy is going through her routines of resting, washing, and studying, maintaining a grace in these daily gestures.

The film is unusual in that it regards sleep as a fertile source of knowledge; one of Lucy’s clients is an old man who longs to experience curiosity before death. Other than Anna Kannava’s sublime Dreams for Life (2004), I can’t think of another film with this kind of Elizabethan interest in sleep as a path to creativity; both movies end with platonic dreamers side by side. What Lucy’s client wants is not arousal but the prospect of drifting off next to a beauty. Like Kannava, Leigh believes in sleep as a wondrous, death-like state: each night, one lies down in hope of revelations.