Mundane but disquieting, sterile yet physical, the opening scene ofJulia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty" suggests not so much an arthouse film as an icehouse one, keeping its distance from fairy tale land and the audience.
In a white lab, a pale technician attaches a nodule to plastic tubing. Pretty college student Lucy comes in and they greet each other. He has her sit, then slowly slides a long length of the tube, connected to some monitor whose readings are unseen, down her throat.
Lucy struggles with her gag reflex, but represses it long enough to complete the test successfully. That's what Australian actress Emily Browning does with the role of Lucy. While giving one of the best performances in a year of good ones, she also pushes the boundaries of commitment to art.
An Australian novelist, Leigh must have fallen under the spell of Michael Haneke ("Caché") before making this directorial review. With its formally composed scenes, static camera and slow fades out and in, "Sleeping Beauty" looks elegant and chilly, even when its subject matter is queasy and unsettling.
In content, "Sleeping Beauty" stares at the upper class twit-porn, male voyeurism and flop sweat of Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut." But while that remained preserved in an aspic of 1950s hypocrisies, Leigh smiles sardonically and keeps moving. Even while dumping even more female passivity into that unerotic stew, Leigh seems to be enjoying herself. (With its frozen gaze botox perhaps?) "Sleeping Beauty" is unable to wink. But look closely, and it lifts an eyebrow.
After Lucy leaves the lab, we join her gargling in a public bathroom. Next she's in a bar bathroom, wearing a slinky dress, doing lines of coke with her pretty classmate (Hannah Wong) before hooking up. Lucy lets this happen, negotiating the evening's outcome by coin flips, but only after she's zeroed in on the biggest jerk in the place. As in other encounters, what's in it for her is not entirely clear.
As a struggling student, we see her cleaning up in a restaurant, being hassled for rent by a roommate, volunteering for another lab experiment, endlessly making copies in a giant gray cubicle holder for a vulpine blonde boss always perched watchfully close.
But Lucy is also out partying, which soon leads to a more discreet engagement. Answering an ad in the college paper, she's hired for a very alternative business, run by another tall blonde, this one carefully coifed and coolly coiled.
It's the sort of enterprise where a new employee is told to choose lipstick "that matches the color of your labia; an exact match."
In lingerie, Lucy serves wine to a roomful of elderly men, while other employees lounge in even flimsier garb designed to present their naughty bits. With their enervated poses, these women might be an episode of Robert Palmer music video faux band gone wild.
Brandy and cigars after dinner features two of these women kneeling flanking the fireplace, faces down, rears raised, like fleshy andirons. In other circumstances, that might be stimulating; here, they seem more like indiscreet tchotchkes of the haut bourgeoisie. But in her affectless way, Lucy goes along with the goings on.