Vulnerable, yes. Innocent …?

Emily Browning says that’s not the case, though her doe-eyes and delicate features may suggest otherwise.

The star of the Cannes Film Festival’s disturbing erotic drama Sleeping Beauty features her as a young woman who willingly enters a high-class prostitution ring, where she submits to the assorted men with shocking passivity by slumbering nude through the encounters.

Though it has received mixed reviews, Sleeping Beauty has been one of the annual film gathering’s most provocative titles — for obvious reasons. “I just don’t have a problem with naked human bodies,” the 22-year-old Australian says.

Browning made her breakthrough in 2004’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and bad things keep happening to her characters. She most recently starred as Baby Doll, the warrior in a schoolgirl uniform in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch, playing another hyper-sexualized young woman in captivity. Sleeping Beauty is not only more of an art film, it’s also much more scandalous, as the poster for the movie suggests (click through for the full version.)

“The character Lucy, I think of her as sort of quietly and willfully reckless,” writer-director Julia Leigh told reporters. “If she is submissive, it’s actually a radical form of submission in agreeing to do these things. If the world is going to function in a way of using or exploiting people in all sorts of ways, maybe her perverse provocation is ‘My cheek is turned. Try me.’”

Entertainment Weekly film critic Lisa Schwarzbaum describes the “radical passivity” of Browning, and the “scenes of wrinkled old man flesh and flawless young girl flesh.” The actress says she got through those uncomfortable moments much the way the character does — by trying to tune it out — though she wasn’t physically anesthetized like Lucy.

“I didn’t become as disturbed during those scenes in the sleeping chamber as you might imagine. I taught myself to mediate through those scenes. I wasn’t present in those scenes at all, so they really didn’t have as much effect on me as I thought they might have,” Browning said at the film’s festival press conference.


Even in this picture from the red-carpet premiere at Cannes’ Grande Theatre Lumiere, it looks like the men behind the cameras are leering at her, but Browning says she’s actually the opposite of an exhibitionist. “In my everyday life, I’m a little bit nervous and not particularly brave so I feel if I can be completely brave in my work then I’m doing something right,” she says. “That’s the one area I can give myself over to it.”

And she doesn’t see her character as damsel in distress, despite the fairy-tale alluding title. “In terms of innocence, the contradiction maybe comes because I physically look – I suppose – kind of innocent,” Browning says. “But she’s very aware. I don’t see her as a victim in any way.”

If anything, she sees her as her own antagonist. “There is something perverse about her willingness to let the forces around her control her life,” Browning says. “In the beginning of the film, she chooses what man to go home with by flipping a coin. I see her in a way as a nihilist. She’s just letting things happen to her. She’s willingly putting herself in danger.”

For more film news, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter: @Breznican.