Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Sleeping Beauty - Theatrical Review


Release Date: December 2, 2011

I sought this movie out and it wasn't easy. No theaters (even the small art house theaters) were showing it. My few independent theaters I frequent had no listing for it during its initial week of release. The harder it is to find a certain film the more obsessed I get about it. So when it finally appeared at one theater for one week in Hollywood I wasted no time in going to see what all the fuss was about.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: Egyptian Theater Hollywood
Time: 9:30 pm December 15, 2011
Projector Type: Film 2D
Film Rating: Unrated
Film Runtime: 1 hr 44 min
Studio: IFC films

Loves: Small films with big ideas
Likes: Emily Browning
Neutral: Shallow stories with loose ends
Hates: When a movie lets down its actors
Not: The same Sleeping Beauty you grew up with

"What an intriguing concept", That is what I thought when I first heard about Sleeping Beauty over a year ago and I still think it is. Sometimes an intriguing idea is enough to carry a film and help make up for any of its supposed faults. Like many other independent films I have seen recently, the movie isn't so much about any one thing. It isn't necessarily about the lead character, it isn't really about the hidden world she discovers while working at her new job and it isn't exactly about the job itself. As a matter of fact the film by first time director Julia Leigh seems to be struggling from minute one to find some sort of narrative avenue for its audience to latch on to. There are a lot of great ideas floating around in Sleeping Beauty that help save it from the depths of mediocrity but in the end it is more or less an exercise in excessive pointlessness that leads nowhere while also not fully exploiting the potential for such an intriguing concept.

Lucy (Emily Browning) has got some financial problems in conjunction with a somewhat unhealthy but very active nightlife. She is a student at a University, lives with a humorless couple that gives no leeway come rent time and has only one real friend that she visits routinely but whom of which is suffering from a disease of some sort. She curbs her financial woes by taking on multiple jobs and volunteering for any and all programs to help pay the bills. Her quest for financial security eventually leads her to answering an ad in the local school paper seeking a person of discretion and unique beauty. Upon meeting Clara (Rachael Blake), the proprietor of the organization Lucy is seeking employment with, she is hired after a rather intimate inspection of her personal attributes. Lucy then begins her journey into a world of hidden desires, secrets and perversions that will change her forever.

Don't quit your day job.

This is a very strange film. I wasn't very sure what I was in store for from it but I can't rightly say I was expecting anything near what I got either. There have been so many films that have examined the prostitution life to near exhaustion that if anyone were to attempt to re-tell such a tale it really needs to have something special to it. It's not that I am some cold hearted bastard who doesn't give two shits about the plight of a woman employed in the worlds oldest profession, its just that I have seen it all before and I can only be told the same story with new dressing so many times. Sleeping Beauty has found that new spin on an old formula though and provides a very interesting twist on a story that would otherwise be a very plodding experience

That is one of, if not THE best thing Sleeping Beauty has going for it, well that and its star but more on her later. All the early moments of the film play out with us watching Lucy go through the motions of her every day life. We see her go to her multiple jobs as a printing clerk, a waitress and as a volunteer for some strange lab experiment where she must endure some excruciating discomfort (I am not sure if it was done for real but it made me squirm a little). She goes out to the local lounge at night and after getting high off some cocaine from a random woman she meets, engages in a bet with two men to determine which one gets to sleep with her. After that she stumbles home the next morning to find the couple she lives with waiting impatiently for her to confront her about the money she owes them. The film does a decent enough job of laying down the groundwork for Lucy's life but there was this odd disconnect I had where I still didn't know WHO Lucy was...even after all that set up.

Lucy isn't shy when it comes to meeting new people.

I got the sense of her recklessness just fine and that she was hurting for attention but beyond that she was a vapid screen presence. Who is she? Why is she reckless? Why does she crave attention from perfect strangers? Why does she hate her mother so much? Is she lying or telling the truth about her mother? There literally is no context for Lucy and as such we have no reason to care. The only moments we get to see any sort of vulnerability to her or even a sliver of emotion is during her visits to a male friend named Birdmann (Ewen Leslie) but even then we get very little in the way of information about her. That entire relationship between the two of them actually added more questions than it ever answered and felt completely disconnected from the larger picture at hand. Seeing Lucy randomly show up at Birdmann's home where they pretend to be this married couple (at least I think that's what was happening) and talk about some incidents in their past felt like a build up to some sort of revelation. But the inevitable conclusion to their relationship had no bearing on anything else in Lucy's life and was quickly forgotten about.

At this time I would like to bring up the odd directorial decisions made concerning the way it was shot. Normally this would be more a matter of taste or preference, certain filmmakers have a signature style in which they film their movies that helps put their stamp on it but there are almost always common rules of filmmaking that are abided by. You have the two shot, the over-the-shoulder-shot, the close up, the wide shot and so on. Sleeping Beauty is comprised of two different types of shots, the two shot and the wide shot with the very rare medium close up. Other than one major exception near the middle of the film it never waivers from that formula and to be quite honest it started to become a little annoying. There were a couple close ups in there but they were so fleeting that they never had a chance to really register. You might be asking why any of this matters at all, well I am about to answer that for you.

The qualifications for Lucy's new job are...rigorous.

With most of the film made up of these wide shots the entire film felt very cold and unwelcoming and when you mix that with a handful of actors that have been forced to show as little emotion as possible it doesn't bode too well for the viewer. Picture a five to six minute scene with two characters sitting in chairs coldly delivering stilted dialog to one another. Now picture that scene from a good distance away. Now picture that scene all done in one shot with no cuts. Now picture every single scene in the entire movie shot in this exact same manner. It wasn't something that initially jumped out at me and to be quite honest I actually admired the skill of the actors for being able to do such long takes without any cutaways. But at about the hour mark it started to lose its luster and with the exception of a handful of scenes featuring Lucy in her sleeping beauty mode, all it did was serve to disconnect me even more than I already was.

Now this movie isn't all bad and I need to stress this. Despite my lack of interest in its main character I actually found the underlying film to be fairly hypnotic at times. Those long shot sequences I just got done bitching about...well they weren't all bad either. My argument still stands that the film needed a bigger pallet of shot choices but there were more than a few instances where the decision to shoot a scene all in one shot was mesmerizing to watch. Take for instance the first time Lucy meets Clara and how it leads from this simple small talk to intimate details about her physical health, not to mention being asked to strip for inspection without any warning, was unnerving in a way that if shot like a normal film would have stolen the tension that it was building up to. There is a place for long shots like this, it just needed fewer of them.

Lucy prepares for her first night on the job.

Let's talk about Emily Browning for a second. Earlier this year she starred in the resounding disaster of a film called Sucker Punch which was a movie many thought to be very exploitative in its liberal use of the girls and their...ahem...assets. Well let me tell ya, you ain't seen nothing yet. As far a looks go she fit the bill perfectly. Clara refers to Lucy as having a very unique sort of beauty to her which I agree with completely. She is a very attractive woman but she isn't immediately striking in her physical beauty. It is hard to explain but the further the movie went on the more attractive she became. However, her looks aside, Browning will not win any awards for her acting in Sleeping Beauty. She is a complete blank slate through most of the film with one or two moments where we actually get to see her react to something (one in which her reaction to a certain realization is both alarming and difficult to watch due to its prolonged length). She isn't bad in the role, she just isn't really given anything to work with. But if there were an award for the most daring performance of the year she would win hands down.

The stuff she is put through early on is humiliating but nothing too outrageous. The dinner party she attends as a serving girl has this very macabre feel to it with its elaborate presentation. The rituals we witness are things that only truly disturbed individuals would take delight in and although I felt nothing for the character Lucy during these scenes I couldn't help but feel awful for Browning herself. She clearly has no qualms about being subjugated to some very demeaning acts of perversion but it wasn't until later when she gets "promoted" that the film takes on a whole new perverse nature that made everything before it appear to be tame in comparison. The later portions of the film when she must willingly take a drug that puts her into a deep slumber for a number of hours is where the film, and Browning, take it to a whole new level of distrubing.

Lucy finally becomes the sleeping beauty.

As I mentioned at the outset of this review, I love the concept of the movie. For those not familiar with it I will summarize it for you. The title comes from the idea of a willing  individual (Lucy) who is placed in a bed where she proceeds to fall into a deep drug induced sleep and...that's it. Well, that's it for all she knows. You see, she has no idea what is going on during those hours of unconciousness. She is paid a large sum of money to go to sleep and wake up a few hours later and that's all she knows. The intriguing part of all this is the fact that she has no idea what is happening to her, around her or with her during that time. What an amazing and horrifying hook for a film. The unknown is usually the greatest evil of all. It is often the thing that drives most people mad and wouldn't you know it, the movie totally f**ks this promising concept up.

How does it f**k it up exactly? Well, the whole idea behind the film is that Lucy doesn't know what is happening to her when she goes to sleep...but the problem lies with the fact that we have full knowledge of what is happening to her BECAUSE WE SEE IT BEFORE HER! Yes, this is the greatest crime any film can commit. When the audience knows something before the main character does it drains it of any sort of tension or momentum.  Instead of discovering things when she does we are forced to sit there and wait for her to catch up to us. When Lucy starts to get curious about what is going on I could really give a shit because I ALREADY KNEW 30 MINUTES AGO! I'm not gonna lie, what happens to her during her nap time is deeply disturbing and borderline unwatchable but the impact of what happened to her is lost simply because once we know what she doesn't the rest of the film just becomes pointless and exploitative in the worse way possible. What can be gained by showing us not one, not two but three different encounters she has while asleep if each time she learns nothing from it?

Once again though I have to praise Browning despite the films failures because I cannot even begin to imagine the courage and talent used to remain perfectly still and limp wristed as she was during those sequences. It was quite possibly one of the most brave performances I had seen in a very long time which makes it even more unfortunate that the film lets her down like it does. Sleeping Beauty is a failed experiment by a first time director who had a great idea for a story but didn't know how to properly execute it. There are some fantastic (and nightmarish) moments to be found here but none of those moments ever amount to any sort of satisfying whole. If you find yourself in the mood for a unique movie experience and have a fairly open mind when it comes to sex then you might find some worthwhile things to like amongst the mass of problems it has. But if you like your movies a little more simple and entertaining I suggest you wait and...




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