It’s easy to see why Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty was invited into the Cannes film festival’s prestigious official competition, a rare honour for a directorial debut. Understatedly strange, erotic, quietly surrealistic and slightly disturbing, it’s a striking film that immediately marks out its Australian writer-director as a confident new cinematic voice.
The simple though often deliberately perplexing tale finds beautiful university student Lucy, played with magnificent self-possession by Emily Browning, taking on a part-time job where she allows herself to be drugged and sexually used by rich, elderly men for reasons that aren’t completely clear.
In content and style terms the film is so unlike 99.99 percent of those released it’s tempting to call it boldly original, though Leigh’s ambiguous co-mingling of reality, the subconscious and sexual desire owes much to the dreamscapes of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. The perverse female sexual parables of France’s Catherine Breillat (whose last film interestingly was also called Sleeping Beauty) are also a likely influence on the director.
Former novelist Leigh makes scenes of everyday normality bizarre using dialogue and behaviour a mere couple of steps beyond psychological realism, while Browning gives life to a character who as written is just an abstraction.