Cannes 2011: Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty: Female Sexual Perversity Under the Spotlight

05/23/2011 04:02 pm ET | Updated Jul 23, 2011
  • Karin Badt Associate Professor of Cinema and Theater in Paris

The first shot of Julia Leigh's first movie, Sleeping Beauty, captures the complex perversity of the film: a girl is in a sterile medical lab, while a scientist, evidently paying her for an experiment, pushes a tube deep down her throat and she gags. She willingly submits, and even -- during a joking moment -- laughs.

Eventually, this college student, Lucy, acquires a new part-time job: to be a "sleeping beauty" in a high-class brothel of sorts, run by a stoic madame, hair tight in a bun, named Claire. She is drugged, and then draped naked on a bed in one of the rooms of this "castle." During the night, madame Claire escorts old wealthy men into the chamber, and one by one they do what they wish with her body: "With one rule," Claire tells them in an eery voice. "No penetration."

We watch as each decrepit old man figures out what to do with Lucy's translucently white body, with its pre-pubescent pods of breasts. One lifts her and hangs her like a corpse over the bed; another vents his misogyny, and screams "whore" into her ears, pushing his fingers down her throat.

But the rule maintains: no penetration. It is a rule that applies to the audience as well. This is not an erotic movie, where we can be voyeurs on these sexual acts and vicariously enjoy the copped feel of young female flesh. Rather we gaze almost scientifically at the girl's willful self-abuse -- and the oddness of these wounded men who take advantage.

Julia Leigh, a renowned novelist, with an impish look in her murky dark eyes, commented:

"My camera is a kind of tender witness. The awareness of the act of watching is part of the film. I am not just flashing images at you every few seconds. You have time to gaze, which is different from voyeurism. Lucy does not know what is happening in her sleep. The uneasy feeling of being watched in her sleep marries well with the shooting style that involves the audience."

Leigh evidently also spent much time, formally and aesthetically, with each shot.

"I watched a wide range of films, Bunuel's Exterminating Angel, for example, to learn how to cover a group dinner party scene, in one shot."

Nevertheless, her film left audience members gripped and repelled -- and baffled; many admitted they did not know what to do with the experience, and some rejected it tout court.

"I am not surprised that this film makes a strong impact on people," Julia said, unflinchingly, with confidence. "It allows people to use their imagination. It brings you to your own shadow world. I did not hold myself back."

Interestingly, the climax is not a narcoleptic sex act or one of the moments of death that punctuate the narrative: it is a monologue re-telling of a short story by the extraordinarily talented Austrian writer, Ingeborg Bachman, "The Thirtieth Year." One elderly client sits on the white bed and recounts this grim story, about a man who in his thirtieth year faces his sense of mortality, his absolute anxiety that he is trapped by his own trappings of life: his need to escape.

To puzzle how this monologue fits into this odd movie is enough of a reason to see it again -- if not to go find Bachman's book of short stories. It also makes one curious to read Julia Leigh's novels, to see how her musings on death, self-abuse, and gender cohere in her writing, perhaps in a clearer way than her film. In our interview, she said, elliptically, that she chose to film age and youth, naked males and naked females, to create a "whole".

What does this mean?

Still, whether you understand it or not, Sleeping Beauty is a movie that gets under your skin. One journalist told me that he hadn't thought much when he saw it, but found himself reflecting on it days after the screening.

The greatest achievement of the film is the voice it gives to female identity--to the complexity, and perhaps masochistic perversion, of female desire. Every spectator who saw the movie asked: why is Lucy so passive? Why does she accept being an interstice in a man's world?

"I don't see Lucy as so passive," the director said ably. "She is quietly restless, sexually proactive in her own waking life. She is very willful; she accepts this job, and she does it more than once. Masochism is your interpretation."

"What would you say, though, to spectators who say that no human being would willingly put themselves in such a situation?"

"What? They can't possibly imagine someone who does not act in their own best interest?" Julia laughed. "We have all been careless and reckless, and have behaved self-destructively. Lucy's provocation is to the world. She both tests herself, and tests how far other people will react."



Uncannily (pun intended), we were treated to two brothel films in the Cannes competition this year: not only Leigh's Sleeping Beauty but Bertrand Bonello's House of Intolerance, a film that also takes place in an eerie castle brothel. Put back to back with Leigh's film, one sees how taking the same object -- females willingly prostituting themselves for men -- can have a completely different effect, depending on the integrity (and gender) of the director.

Bonello's film is more conventionally moralistic -- and paternalistic -- than Leigh's. While Leigh underscores the willful agency of her masochistic female protagonist, Bonello emphasizes female passivity, voyeuristically filming women as hopeless victims. His film is two hours and five (very long) minutes of lingering camera shots of voluptuous women in gorgeous forms of undress stuck in a turn-of-the-century French brothel, who are apparently there because they have no choice to be anywhere else. House of Intolerance asks us to pity these poor whores, sluggishly draped on couches, composed as still-lives in furs, silks and feathers. It regales us with images of men pouring cold champagne on the breasts of sumptuous girls in bathtubs, men forcing girls to dress in white pinafore and mimic a doll, men asking women dressed as geishas to speak Japanese to them, all filmed tediously (and gorgeously) in the dark claustrophobic space of a regal French mansion in Paris, while a black panther lies very painterly on a Napoleonic couch.

One woman is even slashed in the face, a scene we are treated to, in bloody detail, at least five times.

The film seems, at points, to have a touch of Luis Bunuel (i.e. his film Exterminating Angel -- also cited by Julia Leigh), in its sterile, depressing space, as well as in its sumptuous close-ups of objects in gold-lit stuffy rooms: creams, soaps, hair-brushes, champagne glasses, pipes. But there is a major difference. Bunuel's aim was not to make his films, so trenchantly critical of the bourgeoisie, simply a consumptive feast for the eyes.

In contrast, Bonello's aim seems to be fetish for the sake of fetish.

For example, in one creepy scene, the camera forces us to "enjoy" the grotesque disfigured mouth of one of the prostitutes ("The Jewess"), while a gathering of bourgeois old men and old ladies (including a midget, pinpointed as a fellow "freak) finger her naked body. Later we watch as a creepy old ugly gynecologist spreads the legs of each of these women, to stick up a speculum (a male fantasy?). And one of the most evocative images is the dead body of a gorgeous girl who died of syphilis, poor thing, her creamy skin riddled with reddened sores.

The film ever so often tosses out a critical subtext, as in the interjection of the contemporary lyrics: "It's a Man's World", but this is not enough to justify a very unpleasant experience watching women treated by the camera like top-model slaves -- for our spectator pleasure -- for two hours and five minutes. These women have no spark of resistance, no personality, no umpf whatsoever -- but they are beautiful, a mix of Ingres with Pinup.

One is tempted to tell Bonello: you cannot have your cake and eat it too -- pretend to care about women's emancipation, and then film them as mindless sluts, with no will whatsoever. In comparison to Leigh's groundbreaking work, it all comes off as one big male fantasy, veiled thinly by cinematic golden hues.

A fellow journalist, going to the screening after me, said he was looking forward to it. "Is it sexy?" he asked.