Lucy (Emily Browning) is a college student with a number of odd jobs -- medical lab rat, waitress, office clerk -- who, in the search for more money, takes the oddest job of all; as her employer, Clara (an icy, imperious Rachel Blake) explains, Lucy will wear specially-selected lingerie and provide the "silver service," placing cutlery and serving wine, at a series of special dinner parties. The pay is $250 an hour. There is the possibility of promotion. "We rely heavily on mutual trust and discretion," Clara notes, "and I am obliged to tell you there are heavy penalties -- very heavy penalties -- for any breaches of discretion."
Emily Browning is superb here, and not simply "brave," which is the usual tired critical euphemism for a young actress willing to repeatedly show her breasts. Browning's nudity is less important than her nakedness -- her physical state of dress becomes far less important than her emotional state of vulnerability. In many ways, Lucy is a long-lost (and not especially eager to be found) cousin to Maggie Gyllenhaal's Lee in "Secretary," a young woman exercising an ultimate degree of control by willingly giving all control over to others, a person seeking self-assertion through self-negation. But as Lucy gets promoted -- and as Leigh lingers perhaps too long on her new duties, making for scenes that are somehow both unspeakable and tedious -- the film slides into a repetitive, small-scale groove, and Lucy's earlier spark fizzles into apathy, and transforms from a journey with the dark and disquieting power of, say, "The Story of O" to a slacker, smaller version of the same you could just as well call The Story of Oh, Whatever.
As much as I am sure that "Sleeping Beauty" will start extensive arguments -- I can imagine vast energies being devoted to both exalting it and tearing it down, making it a film fraught with the intellectual and cultural equivalent of potential energy -- I am also sure that the film inarguably marks Leigh as a director to watch. Leigh may not quite have a fully-developed sense of cinema's unique narrative needs (Lucy often feels more like the narrator of a novel than the protagonist of a film, observing instead of acting), but she unequivocally has a vision which she can not only get out of her imagination and up onto the screen but also get up onto the screen and then into your imagination. Cinematography, sound editing and set design all work in harmony here to craft a haunting, haunted world that still feels real as the rent and raw as a wound. "Sleeping Beauty" isn't a perfect film, but it is, in many ways, near-perfect cinema -- a unique story, untellable in any other medium, that resists both easy dismissal and glib praise, sinking into the mind with the ungraspable, all-pervading power of a dream [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from Cannes.