The last time I saw Emily Browning on screen was this past March when the Australian starlet was throwing herself into the role of Baby Doll, a sexually abused chick who who ends up lobotomized and catatonic in Zack Snyder’s slickly stylized exploitation pic Sucker Punch. Now I’m at Cannes, where the sun is beating down, the celebrity gawkers are staking territory for their folding chairs hours to get a good view of movie stars ascending the steps of the Palais, the little French dogs are pooping in the side streets, the critics are talking about cinema and iPads, and here’s Emily Browning again.
This time, in Sleeping Beauty, she plays Lucy, a young university student who finds lucrative work swallowing drugs that deaden her into submissive narcolepsy and allow old men to enact erotic fantasies using her unconscious, naked body. As Lucy’s procurer/madam/evil stepmother type (Rachael Blake) tells the girl, “You will go to sleep. You will wake up. It will be as if those hours never existed.” What distinguishes this provocative Cannes arthouse competition entry from the commercial folderol of Sucker Punch is, I guess, that Sleeping Beauty, by first-time Australian writer-director Julia Leigh, is presented as a feminist exploration (Jane Campion is prominently listed as a mentor). And Sucker Punch can be dismissed as, you know, a cheesy fanboy fantasy. I’m not sold on the distinction.
It’s Leigh herself who uses the dubious phrase “radical passivity” in accompanying production notes to describe Lucy’s approach to life, an attitude the young woman applies not only to her sex work but also to the three other jobs she holds down to (barely) make ends meet: She sells herself as a medical subject (wherein a researcher sticks an awfully long tube down her gullet); she buses tables at a charmless pub; and she does office gruntwork, photocopying documents. All three jobs use parts of her body but none of her mind. Oh, and she also turns occasional tricks at bars.
It’s my hunch that these are not the only jobs available to smart, worldly young university women, even as dreamed up by feminist storytellers trying to make a point. But then, I don’t live in the neighborhood. Anyway, by comparison, Lucy’s kinky sex job — found through an ad in the student newspaper — can be counted as a kind of skill-set advance. Certainly the pay is better.
Leigh, an award-winning novelist, makes Sleeping Beauty intentionally difficult to follow, demanding the viewer work hard to be rewarded with scenes of wrinkled old man flesh and flawless young girl flesh. Relationships between characters are never explained. Some scenes are little more than a five-second view of a room or an action — a quick pic meant to convey a mood (existential despair? psychotic personality disorder? the female sexual condition?) rather than to advance any story. In one scene, women dressed in fashion bondage-gear act as waitstaff to the same old “princes” who will later pay for bed time with their young princess.
Cannes screenings, especially of challenging films, defy instant analysis, let alone opinionization. (That doesn’t stop critics from opining, instantly, but I’m not sure the quick-time activity benefits either the film, the critic, or the reader.) Me, I’m still trying to figure out Lucy’s relationship to her apartment roommates and her dying male best friend: The only man she cares about is the only man sexually incapacitated by alcoholism. What does that mean?
Anyhow, I just wanted to let you know, Emily Browning is playing a Baby Doll once again.