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