Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the first of a few reviews of flicks I’m catching here at the New Zealand Film Festival. I’m in Wellington for a couple weeks and this stay just so happened to coincide with the NZFF. As luck would have it a ton of Cannes hits are playing the festival and since I didn’t go to the South of France it feels like I’m getting served up a “best of” list of fest flicks I may have missed.
One such film is Sleeping Beauty. Going into the movie the only things I knew about it was that it tends to split audiences, Emily Browning starred in it and there was supposed to be a ridiculous amount of nudity.
Put a check mark next to all three. The predominantly older Kiwi audience was not quite prepared for this one, I think, as there were a large number of loud walkouts starting at about 5 minutes in and happening at regular intervals until the end credits.
Funnily enough this was the same theater I saw Irreversible in way back in 2003. Now that one had a ton more walk-outs, but I’d say it’s a better movie. There’s nothing in Sleeping Beauty that packs the punch of the ending of Irreversible. At least for me.
Don’t get me wrong, I like character study movies and that’s exactly what this is. The plot is threadbare, focusing on the experiences of a struggling college student named Lucy (Emily Browning) who has trouble paying her rent although she seems to have a few dozen part-time jobs. Oh, and she picks up men of all ages every night just because.
I may re-examine this movie as I write because if I waited until I had the movie comfortably figured out you would probably be reading this 10 years from now. As I mentioned, plot-wise it’s very simple. A promiscuous, sexy young woman is used to selling her body (the opening shot has her doing minor medical testing, which involves a very graphic insertion of a tube down her throat) and answers an ad that begins her journey into a rather hyper-sexual Eyes Wide Shut-esque world of prostitution.
That’s about it as far as plot. This prostitution starts off as show only, with Browning in lingerie (a virginal white lace number while all her co-workers are older and in a more revealing S&M black leather outfit) pouring wine for rich old white men, who pay exorbitant sums of money, yet seem to completely ignore the woman around them as they talk business and pleasure around the dinner table.
But there comes a chance to upgrade to the more mysterious, high paying gig, which is where our title comes into play. Browning is assured that her vagina (which she is told repeatedly is sacred) will not be penetrated, but she must drink this unnamed drug in her tea that will make her pass out for a block of time. When she wakes up she’ll be woozy, but have no idea what happened to her. She’s told to ask no questions, take the money and use her utmost discretion.
What feels like a thriller set up turns out to be something else all together. Maybe I was trying to compartmentalize the film, which is unfair, but I really wanted there to be more to the mystery, more to the threat of discretion. Instead we’re shown exactly what happens to Lucy each time she’s unconscious and while it isn’t the most pleasant of things to witness it’s hardly the horror of what the audience would imagine if it was left up to us to fill in the blanks.
In my opinion it’s a misstep in the storytelling and I’ll tell you exactly why. Browning’s character becomes obsessed with what happens to her when she’s unconscious. She even buys a spy camera to find out at one point. Lucy gets no answers from her boss (Rachael Blake) and that only makes her more curious.
But by showing us what happens to her before this curiosity streak effectively puts us, the audience, way ahead of her as a character. We’re not experiencing the story through her anymore, which had been the case up to this point, but instead waiting for her to catch up with us.
I think it’s a blunder, but it’s not a movie-killing problem.
If any one person can take credit for keeping this story afloat it’s Browning, who bares her soul (and just about everything else) here. In an odd way, her character in Sucker Punch is more hyper-sexualized than her often very, very, very naked nympho character here. That’s more in the difference of shooting styles between Zack Snyder and Julia Leigh, but some of it is indeed how Browning approaches the two characters.
Browning’s Lucy is someone who I could easily hate and if I hated her then I’d hate the movie. I’m big on having someone I can either like, love to hate or identify with in the films I watch. It’s the fact that I hate every single character in Bellflower that makes me unable to focus on the badass car and crazy gritty tone and homemade flamethrower. I get caught up with the fact that I have no entry point into the story and can’t enjoy the movie for that reason.
Browning’s character in Sleeping Beauty is quiet and not all that likable on the surface, but Browning gives Lucy a vulnerability that is easy to sympathize with. There are cracks to her assured exterior. It’s a brave performance emotionally and physically.
Rachel Blake is also quite good as the proper Madame. She plays this woman more sad than threatening, but her very prim dress and strict adherence to her core rules make her a little off-putting.
I don’t have a problem with any of the acting in the movie, but the issues I have with the choices made in the storytelling really do hobble what could have been a great film. Not only the point of view shift I mentioned above, but the ending, while a little messed up, isn’t nearly the gut-punch it’s clear they wanted it to be. In fact, considering what we’ve been seeing I found it to be the only moment Browning overacts in the movie.
On a technical level the film is outstanding, with very nice, long takes that let the actors dictate the pacing and stark cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson (Shine). The big downside to the film is that it feels like it’s trying to be more important than it actually is and isn’t willing to forgo the art film for the thriller which it clearly tries to set up and then just drops… or at the very least executes horribly.
If all you’re interested in is the skin, there’s plenty of that, you’ll get your money’s worth. If you want a great movie to back it up, I’m sad to say that’s not there. What is a flawed misfire that I’d just barely give a recommend to just because of the central performance and throwback style of the filmmaking. Kubrick this isn’t, but it feels like it wants to be soooooooo badly.
I have a few more films to hit at the NZFF, including Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, French crime movie Point Blank and Miranda July’s The Future, which I missed at Sundance. I’ll also be continuing my coverage of the Fantasia Film Festival with some reviews of the craziness that went down up in Montreal. Stay tuned!