“Your vagina will not be penetrated. Your vagina will be a temple.” So go the instructions given to Lucy (Sucker Punc’s Emily Browning), a beautiful young college student who takes a part-time job sleeping naked beside rich old men in Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty. “My vagina’s not a temple,” Lucy retorts. That’s probably because she’s been letting her body be used elsewhere in a multitude of ways, both prurient and demure. She picks up men in clubs, possibly for money. She even volunteers for scientific experiments. Indeed, in a clever bit of irony, the only actual penetration depicted in the film comes in the opening scene, which shows Lucy in a science lab as a thin tube is stuck down her throat.
But back to the sleeping-with-old-men thing: The aforementioned lack of actual sex is less a limit and more part of the attraction here. Lucy’s white-haired “suitors” look like their erect days are well behind them; these mostly anonymous men seem to almost represent the punishing nature of time itself. One offers up a lengthy monologue about the withering of his bones, while another jokes that he needs buckets of Viagra to even be able to get it up. When they lie beside Browning’s milky white, impossibly smooth body, the transaction is not so much sexual or financial than it is temporal. There’s a strange, mythic grandeur to these scenes. She’s a promise of youth. Even in this near-lifeless state (Lucy is given a powerful drug that ensures she will sleep through the experience), she glows, like one of those exquisite corpses in Caravaggio paintings.
It may have dawned on you by this point that Sleeping Beauty isn’t exactly working a realist angle. Novelist-turned-director Leigh’s dryly efficient style is perched between the matter-of-fact and the impossibly arty. She favors long takes and every exchange feels calm, premeditated, and pre-choreographed to a fault. The settings are always perfect, too: The encounters between Lucy and the men occur in an immaculate wood-paneled bedroom that might just as easily be an adjunct from those orgy-soaked game rooms in Eyes Wide Shut.
But to what end? There’s certainly something to be said about the commodification of the female body here. (You could start a drinking game counting all the times someone checks out the inside of Lucy’s mouth.) Ditto the exploitative nature of modern life in general; whether Lucy is getting a new apartment, buying electronics, or arguing with her roommates over rent, the whole movie seems to center around transactions. This is where some realism might have helped. The film’s overall affect — the stilted acting, the antiseptic settings, the painstaking compositions — is a bit of a dodge. Divorced from anything resembling the real world and real relationships, Sleeping Beauty struggles to say something relevant — which is sad, because it clearly wants to say so much.