Cannes 2011: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ has a disquieting effect on festival crowds


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Even before it was announced as a title in the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious competition section, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was gaining buzz for its slyly shocking trailer. In the spot, which portrayed a young middle-class woman voluntarily becoming a kinds of upscale geisha for middle-aged men, there was a coldness, but also a subversive sex appeal. We’d seen movies about young women in compromised sexual situations before, but rarely with this much ambiguity about their victimhood.

Julia Leigh’s Australian film, which does not yet have U.S. distribution, had other intriguing elements. It was directed by a novelist (‘The Hunter’) making her cinematic debut. It had the guidance and imprimatur of ‘The Piano’ director Jane Campion, who presented it. And it starred Emily Browning, who was seen engaging a different form of exploitation in this spring’s ‘Sucker Punch.’


When ‘Sleeping Beauty’ finally made its debut to the media Wednesday night, though, it divided the audience. The carefully paced film, which follows a 20-ish woman (Browning) with either no agency whatsoever or a very radical form of it, had some taken with Leigh’s austere vision and Browning’s minimalism. But a lot more of the crowd seemed put off by those qualities. And while the so-called ‘erotic fairy tale’ didn’t ignite a full-blown controversy, the screening did raise eyebrows with its matter-of-fact submissiveness practiced by Browning’s Lucy as she bedded down with her clients.

At a news conference Thursday, the filmmakers acknowledged they were attempting to needle. ‘I guess I am trying to get under people’s skin in a way,’ Leigh said. ‘I like films that don’t go in one ear and out the other.’

In a moment that did hark back to ‘Sucker Punch’ and its thin line between victim and perpetrator, Browning said she was trying to craft a new kind of kind of anti-heroine, one who’s neither pitied nor glorified. ‘She physically looks innocent, but she’s very aware,’ Browning said of her character. ‘I don’t see her as a victim in any way. There’s something perverse about her ... letting things happen to her.’

With its title, its dreamlike moments and a madam whose personality wouldn’t be out of place in a Grimm Brothers tale, Leigh’s movie also has a fairy-tale quality, continuing a theme that has transfixed Hollywood lately. For her part, Leigh was not shy about mentioning her influences, which she said include King Solomon (like the characters in the film, she said, he had young women keep him warm in his old age), Gandhi (he tested his chastity by doing same) and ‘the shady world of the Internet’ and its escort services.

But Leigh also said she was trying to make a point about the complexity of an early stage of adulthood. ‘I think we diminish youth [we say] ‘they’re young; they’ll get over it,’’ she said. ‘But I have a huge amount of respect for that passage of life. It’s a lot harder than we give it credence.’


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-- Steven Zeitchik in Cannes, France