Thursday, October 27, 2011

PFF 2011: Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty

When the 10:10 screening of Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty ended, the negative chatter coming from the crowd at the Ritz Five was something akin to the angry squawking heard after many screenings of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life earlier this year.   Things like, "What was that?", "Just terrible.", "Thank God that's over." and "That's it!  You don't get to pick the movie anymore!".  And just like with The Tree of Life, none of these epithets are fairly warranted, merely idle disgruntlements from an audience caught unawares of what they had just witnessed.  Granted, the film never comes anywhere close to the artistic/cinematic level of the aforementioned Malick, but the Plebeian reaction is nonetheless the same.

The comparisons to The Tree of Life go no further than audience reactions (and this was merely one screening and not an all over thing like with the Malick film), 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.  But enough of these unnecessary comparisons to The Tree of Life (I have already more than stated that the film's really have nothing in common, save for the reactions of the cinematically challenged), let us move on.

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.

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).  As for those aforementioned naysayers at the festival screening - fuck 'em.   Seriously, fuck 'em.  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 (some after show bellyaching would be warranted if it were directed a little differently, a little less middlebrow), Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty is nonetheless, an often powerful look at the so-called breaking point of a person's already fragile psyche.  As for a US release - IFC Films has picked Ms. Leigh's film up (incidentally helped by Aussie heavyweight Jane Campion's involvement as "Presented by") and has announced a December 2 release here in the States - and with IFC, one can only assume this release will be both theatrical and V.O.D.  A full review of this film will be forthcoming on or around said date.

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