If for nothing else than bitter audience reactions, Julia Leigh's debut feature film, Sleeping Beauty (no, not that Sleeping Beauty), can be nominally compared to Terrence Malick's bold masterpiece The Tree of Life. The comparisons to The Tree of Life go no further than audience reactions, as the two films are really nothing alike. While Malick's film is about the deconstruction of memory and the loss and regaining of faith, Ms. Leigh's film is essentially about the attempt of a young woman, who is dead on the inside, to find, for the most part unsuccessfully, an emotional outlet in any form she can find it. Where The Tree of Life is emotionally provocative and immensely draining, Sleeping Beauty is a void of insular excess, even while showing the most shocking of moments. In a way though, I suppose one could make a case for a connection, however soft it may be, between these two seemingly dissimilar films. Both films surely take on issues of repressed memory and the need for an emotional outlet of some sort. Granted, Malick's film is a masterpiece (and I do not use such a term lightly) and Leigh's, though with its share of cinematic bravura, most certainly is not.
Actually, if Leigh's film need be compared to anything or anyone (even T.S. Elliot said, "No artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone") then it would be to the cinema of Catherine Breillat. Leigh, in her directorial debut (she is a well-known novelist in Australia), imbues her film with a methodical, determined cadence and an almost deadening emotional effect that is allowed an explosive catharsis only in its final moments. This is the type of cinema that evokes the measured yet slyly rapturous oeuvre of the aforementioned Mme. Breillat. Of course the comparisons do not stop there. Other than Breillat being a novelist of some artistic renown in her own native France, she too released a film called Sleeping Beauty earlier this year. Entirely different stories - Breillat's is more Gothic fucked-up fairy-tale while Leigh's is more modern fucked-up malaise - but intriguing nonetheless.
But enough of these comparisons (we can say Breillat and Leigh have both been inspired by the likes of Bresson and Bergman and move on) for Leigh's film, whether it resembles the cinema of Breillat or not, does stand on its own merits. Leigh's Sleeping Beauty is the story of a young, somewhat promiscuous wayward woman trying to make ends meet by taking odd jobs such as waitress, medical experiment guinea pig and a job that seems to amount to scantily clad hostess of a fetish party (perhaps I am just a bit naive, but you have got to see it to believe it). Eventually she lands a job as the titular beauty. This job entails drinking a magical tea that puts her to sleep for several hours, in which time various wealthy older men have their way with her. Hey, at least the money's good - and you have no memory of what has been done to you. How many jobs offer that?
Emily Browning, last seen in the ridiculously inane Sucker Punch (so her calling card did not bode well for this critic), actually does a rather nice job with this deceptively daring role - just like a heroine from a Breillat film (but we are not doing that comparison anymore, so I digress). Now, I can understand how many can be lost in a film such as this. Between the deliberate pacing and the sexual frankness, one can see why certain audiences would feel either bored and/or uncomfortable - even those audiences who say they like art films (you know the kind, they watch Amelie and claim to be a foreign film connoisseur). Too daring for many, and in a way not daring enough for this critic (the artistic bent in the film could lead some to think it much better than it truly is), Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty is nonetheless, a sometimes powerful look at the so-called breaking point of a person's already fragile psyche.