Most people would alert HR if their job interview included the assurance that “your vagina will not be penetrated,” but Lucy doesn’t even blink. In fact, she goes so far as to suggest that she doesn’t much care what does or doesn’t happen to her vagina — or the rest of her body, for that matter.
That makes her an ideal employee for Clara (Rachael Blake), who maintains one of those high-end erotic services that involve private chauffeurs, the sipping of tea, and lipstick precisely shaded to match the wearer’s labia. Clara’s standard offerings include topless table service and human sculptures (they make excellent fireplace stanchions, it turns out), but her specialty is providing elderly men with the company of naked young women who have been drugged to sleep.
Writer/director Julia Leigh’s stately film Sleeping Beauty is mildly curious about what exactly men might want to do with a sleeping girl’s body when they’re not permitted to have vaginal intercourse with it, but Leigh’s primary focus is on the character of Lucy, played by the Vermeer-style beauty Emily Browning with virtually no affect whatsoever. Bereft of meaningful relationships aside from a young man (Ewen Leslie) whose alcoholism she feeds by pouring vodka over his cereal like milk, Lucy drifts through life with what might be considered confidence but might also be considered numbness.
The film is “presented by” Jane Campion, but Leigh’s cool gaze is less in the style of Campion than Kubrick; the setting of Sleeping Beauty recalls Eyes Wide Shut, but the character of Lucy seems inspired more by HAL 9000. The dramatic tension comes from watching Lucy ratchet herself into increasingly extreme situations, seemingly to find out just how hard of a pinch it will take to snap her out of her emotional slumber.
Sleeping Beauty is skillfully crafted, but whereas Leigh leaves nothing to the imagination regarding Lucy’s body, she keeps Lucy’s character tightly under wraps; in the end, we hardly know Lucy any better than Clara’s clients do. Leigh might as well have offered us a lick.
This review originally appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.