I was puzzling over my end-of-the-year list of films, as you do if you are obsessed with keeping track of things, and it took me forever to decide where to put Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch. The conclusion I came to, in the end, and after long debates with people who thought it was, basically, crap, was that Snyder successfully made a movie about objectification that is severely undermined by the fact that he tried to eat his cake, too.
And along comes Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty, which couldn't be more aesthetically different from Sucker Punch, and yet shares many of its themes - especially the central idea of waking up / becoming aware / gaining agency.
Lucy (Emily Browning) tries to finance her life with several badly paid jobs - waitressing, a boring assistant job in an office, a horrifying gig as a lab rat for a science student that requires her to insert a tube through her mouth. Throughout this ordeal - as well as pretty much everything else that we see her do - she remains aloof and strangely elusive. The only exception is her relationship with Birdman (Ewen Leslie), an alcoholic who is drinking himself to death. She acts like a subverted mother figure; concerned and caring, delivering the morning bottle of vodka, performing in their shared games in which they pretend that they are someone else entirely, with different lives. The movie leaves their history mostly unexamined, but the extent to which she emotionally depends on that part of her life becomes clear when it breaks away.
She responds to an ad in the paper and starts to work as a different kind of waitress, for a woman who organises events for the rich who can afford everything, and eventually becomes a sleeping beauty - drugged and naked, with the promise of waking up afterwards with no memory of what happened, and more than that, refreshed, the clients are allowed to do anything they want to her (except penetration and things that leave visible scars - in one of the most uncomfortable scenes of the film, one of the clients searches for and finds a way to break the rules). She becomes that perfect, motionless female body - an object for the clients to attribute all their frustrations and fears and their shame. We witness what they do to her, as they reveal their secret desires (always with the promise of not being judged for them).
In a way, Sleeping Beauty takes the concept of Dollhouse without shying away from the true horror of the idea. The biggest lie Dollhouse ever told was that what happened inside was anything but rape, that there was an exciting, adventurous aspect to what was taken from the people in Topher's magical chair.
And then there is the subversion of the rules - Lucy realizes that she can not bear this, not knowing what is happening to her, and asks to record one of the sessions. After we've seen her willingly subject herself to the scientific experiment and meet most of her daily challenges without much emotional involvement, she tries to become aware to retain some kind of control. When this is denied to her, she breaks the rules.
Sleeping Beauty is also interesting when you search for what remains of the fairy tale (which also played a role in Dollhouse...). The princess falling asleep is meant to wait for the prince, but in Sleeping Beauty, the possible prince lies dies, or lies dormant, or maybe never even existed. The person delivering the life-saving kiss is the evil witch herself, the strangely maternal woman who makes the rules and brings sleep, and what comes after the kiss isn't a happy ending, but the terrible scream of someone who has finally waken up and become fully aware of the horror.
2011, directed by Julia Leigh, starring Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Les Chantery.
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