Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty begins with a scene where Lucy (Emily Browning) participates in some sort of medical experiment. She meets a handsome male doctor. After some paperwork, he presents her with a catheter. He says “Thank you for this.” She nods, consenting, and begins the process of gently guiding the catheter down her throat. She gags intermittently but softly as to not disrupt his work. Her eyes fix on the ceiling. “You’re doing a great job,” the male doctor says. Lucy, despite her throat blocked, laughs.
This is all in one unbroken wide almost three-minute long shot. Lucy. In a sterile room. With a grateful anonymous man. Eyes rolled back into her head. Impassively and unemotionally transforming from a person into a body, specifically an orifice, and still having to muster the energy to laugh at a bad joke.
Throughout the film, Lucy jumps from medical subject to waitress to office temp to sex work. She’s always working but also always broke and almost always in the same corduroy skirt and wrinkled button down. A stint as a lingerie-clad caterer leads to a strange gig where Lucy agrees to be sedated, stripped naked and left in a lush bed for very rich, very old men to do with her as they wish.
The film was panned when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Perhaps audiences were hoping for a feature-length version of the orgy party from Eyes Wide Shut or a pulpy exploration of female neurosis like the previous year’s Black Swan. Unlike many male-directed films about sex work, Leigh’s film is not one of empowerment or degradation. Instead, Leigh explores the relationship between sex work and personal agency without cinematically exploiting its protagonist. It is a more haunting and subtle creation.
Sleeping Beauty is about voluntary passivity and its corrosive effect on the soul. It’s about walking through life unconscious. It’s about still being conscious no matter how lifeless you are. As one client says to Lucy “Some people fake their death. I’m faking my life.” Her response: “You’re doing a good job.” She would rather recycle the doctor’s joke rather than banter. Her body is there but Lucy is asleep.
Leslye Headland is a filmmaker, playwright and tv writer. She wrote and directed the films Bachelorette and Sleeping with Other People. She co-created, directed and produced the Netflix series Russian Doll.