REVIEW: ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Hey, Doesn’t Anybody Ever Just Have Sex Anymore?

Will Leitch
The Projector

1. So here's a crazy question: When was the last time you saw a movie that made sex look like it might possibly be fun? I don't mean pornography, of the soft-and-hard-core variety, with the fake writhing and kabuki ecstasy. I'm talking about a normal movie, made by human beings, about human beings having sex, that didn't make sex look like it was punishment for some long-hidden, cardinal sin? Thing is, the sex itself isn't necessarily the sin; no, in movies today, sex has become less the sin and more the numbing, impersonal self-medication of the guilt-ridden doomed. Oftentimes, especially in Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty," sex in film is merely a metaphor for larger issues (even if, here, it's a little baffling what those issues might be). But this is bizarre too. Our movies are spending a ton of time talking about what sex means, and not much time having it.

2. "Sleeping Beauty" is a dramatically inert, supremely affected dead-on-arrival thinkpiece about female passivity, and the male gaze, and objectifying society, and probably a bunch of other stuff and also possibly none of it. It "stars" -- and I hesitate to use the word "stars," since it implies something other than a pale woman occasionally walking wanly naked through the frame -- Emily Browning ("Sucker Punch") as Lucy, a college student who turns tricks on the side to make money, though, of course, it's less about the money than perpetuating her self-hatred. (At one point, she even burns the cash she receives from a job. You know what a great cure for self-hatred is? Charity!) She ends up answering an ad for a very particular sort of trick-turning, in which she takes a pill, passes out for an indeterminate amount of time and lies naked in bed overnight with elderly white men who are not allowed to "penetrate" her. This word is used a lot in "Sleeping Beauty," along with "labia"and "vaginal" and all sorts of other words that describe things involved with sex but are never used by anyone who actually has sex, before, during or after the activity. Just once, I was desperate for someone to say "hump" or something.

3. Anyway, this odd sexual peccadillo leads us to several scenes of an unclothed Browning lying next to some schlumpy, shriveled old man who caresses her face and skin to remind him of what he has lost and how little time there is left until he dies. Perhaps Leigh wants this to mean something, but mostly, you spend the film thinking, "Well, you have to credit Emily Browning for being able to sit there while an elderly actor licks her cheek and cries without breaking out into laughter. That has to be difficult." Lucy is so passive when she's awake that knocking her out, honestly, doesn't seem all that different; the character is so sedentary and blank that it's clearly a dramatic choice by Leigh rather than a problem with Browning (though her eyes were similarly nobody's-home in "Sucker Punch"). Why is she so passive? Why does she suddenly burst into tears in the back of a car and then move along to the next gig like nothing was ever the matter? Who's the drug addict she visits every few scenes? Leigh doesn't provide answers to these questions because, frankly, I think she's making a theoretical construct of a movie rather than a real one. I don't think she's thought that far through. It's like an endless professorial lecture that mocks you for wondering if there's a syllabus, or even wondering whether or not this class even gives grades.

4. Leigh has a keen eye for composition, though it's possible that I only think that because so rarely do any of her frames feature anything moving. (Perhaps human motion would mess up the china.) Browning is nude for at least 70 percent of the film, though Leigh has made her so pale that she's not only fragile, she's practically translucent. Several times, I mistook her for Powder. She just sort of floats from one scene to another, never changing facial expression, whether she's picking up a john, taking place in a University science experiment, being manhandled by an octogenarian or serving dinner. Again, this sameness is part of Leigh's point, but I don't know what Leigh's point is, and I'm not sure she's entirely worked it through herself.

5. And we're left back with the sex problem again. It is not Julia Leigh's responsibility to reinvent the sex drama, or to do anything other than make this weird, stilted, so-awkward-it's-almost-surreal chamber exercise. But I still can't help thinking that this is yet another movie that deals with sex in which you feel like you could eat pasta off the floor of the room where all the sex is supposedly happening. It's so sterile and clinical and emotionless that making a film about the emotionlessness of sex has become more of a cliche than just good ole Cinemax softcore porn. (At least there's a driving plot in those movies: He thinks someone ordered a pizza, no one ordered a pizza, hey there's a lady on the couch anyway, come on in.) No one in "Sleeping Beauty" has a sense of humor, or laughs, or even smiles; I'm not entirely sure anyone in the film possess teeth. (I didn't see them.) Oh, for the days of the late Ken Russell, when issues of ribaldry and sexual repression/excess were given their day in court. Sex is a byproduct anymore. Sex is too messy anymore. These are the artsy sex movies we are given. I hope these are not the sex movies we deserve.

Grade: D+