CIFF Diary: Day 10, pt. 3 - The Return of Baby Doll

 10/16 - Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty arrives with the "Jane Campion Presents" stamp of approval, and although the film maker shows the promise of creating images that rank with the most indelible of Campion's, her experiment in examining femininity through the confining frame of capitalism carries little potency by film's end.  This is too bad because, like the film that kicked off this festival for me, Lars Von Trier's Melancholia, I feel like there is a perfectly good film existing within the parameters of what the film maker released as a finished product.  Fortunately, even though I think both of these films could be re-edited and truncated into better pictures, I don't think that either Leigh or Von Trier got their films to that point of unraveling through a lack of ambition--Sleeping Beauty and Melancholia are films that want it all, and I tend to find that more interesting than a film that doesn't want much, and succeeds fully at getting it.

Emily Browning burns some income in Sleeping Beauty
Kirsten Dunst knows what's coming - Melancholia
Sleeping Beauty stars Emily Browning (Lucy), most recently seen in a role that resonates eerily with this one:  Baby Doll in Zach Snyder's under-appreciated Sucker Punch.  Though they use drastically different stylistic approaches, both Sleeping Beauty and Sucker Punch have expressionistic goals that use the particularly juvenile form of Browning as a reflecting surface for a number of culturally entrenched practices, and are primarily engaged with a feminist critique of how patriarchal structures, whether found in the working class video game set or the Eyes Wide Shut-level rich, keep the female body and imagination in submission.  This critique as a central idea for a film is a good one (as I said, I think Sucker Punch is entirely successful in the way these ideas rise up from it's seeming morass of misogyny and fan boy vapidness, although the film is anything but misogynistic and vapid), but with Sleeping Beauty there is a pervasive sense of first-year film school feminism that, put simply, comes off as pretentious.

Sucker Punch
Sleeping Beauty
But not everything about Sleeping Beauty strikes me this way, and it was very late in the film that I even came to this conclusion, reluctantly.  The way in which Sleeping Beauty evokes it's themes of human existence, whether male or female, as increasingly and often scarily bound by the relentless commodification of the everyday is at times executed beautifully through concise, absurdist sketches.  I particularly like the section of the film that portrays Lucy's home life with the ineffectual and ailing "Prince" Thomas (Eden Falk), who takes vodka in his cereal and complains of how tired he is of watching "Oprah."  Nearly every scene with Thomas ends with a reference to the television, and whether it be nature shows or pornography, there are some nicely threaded references to the naturalization of the male gaze as it relates to the kind of passive sexuality that is at the heart of the "Sleeping Beauty" tale from it's origins.  When we get to the point in the film where Lucy goes for the "big money," so to speak, by allowing herself to be drugged for the perverse pleasures of a variety of absurdly opulent elderly men, the plot involving Lucy's attempt to subvert the rules of the game with her secret surveillance fails to have the kind of impact I think Leigh intended.  Although, the various expressions of male sexuality as exhibited in Lucy's three visitors (characters billed only as "Man 1" "Man 2" and "Man 3") are scenes that manipulate our gaze as audience in some interesting ways, sometimes speaking directly to us or placing us at an uncomfortable proximity that had the Sunday night audience reacting in some delightfully awkward ways.  

Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty is an expressionistic drama, and Lucy is a character that is meant to reflect a number of female social roles.  Lucy is wife, waitress, office girl, college student, prostitute, and lab rat.  Yet, to deconstruct every role we see Browning playing in this film seems futile, as I think the overall effect of her character being dissected into these many recognizable parts is more of the goal for Leigh.  And part of the overall problem with Sleeping Beauty is that some of these tangents lead nowhere, as in the late-in-the-film drug journey with her restaurant co-worker, while others, as in the aforementioned scenes with Thomas, are effectively evocative.  Also, Sleeping Beauty is a difficult film from which to extract a central idea or theme, and this isn't helped by the film's disinterest in behaving in any traditional narrative manner (although the trailer for the film tries it's damnedest to pretend as if it does).  Finally, it unfortunately exists in a class of films that utilize its particularly staid, confining aesthetic to greater effect, from Lucille Hadzihalilovic's excellent Frank Wedekind adaptation Innocence to Todd Haynes's Safe (which, like Sleeping Beauty, was marketed through a desperate attempt at re-authoring a film through a trailer).  Sleeping Beauty is perhaps an interesting film viewed in relation to other similar pictures, or as an exercise in radical adaptation, but by no means a wholly satisfying film of either story or ideas.   

Up Next:  Cinema from Sri Lanka:  Karma



nathaniel drake carlson said...

You know what else this one reminds me of? Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, especially as regards the general structure or arc of the piece and specifically Lucy's character. It ends in a somewhat similar manner I would suggest and would seem to be implying much the same thing.

Jason Hedrick said...

Absolutely. I knew there were other films that it reminded me of, and Dielman is definitely one. But, with Dielman, there is something hypnotic in the repetition and resonant about the framing that Sleeping Beauty doesn't really come close to achieving. And you are right that the endings are similar, but where Dielman, somehow, after all that, carries a tremendous impact, Beauty just doesn't. I was including you as my "screening partner" here since we seemed to see it at pretty much the same time, and talked online about it just after Brian and I talked about it all the way home on the brown line. It was nice - kind of felt like we were all together again. Maybe more interesting to talk about than actually see? You should know, when it was over at the CIFF you could kind of sense a collective shrug from a completely packed house. And, at least one guy near Brian and I who woke up when the credits hit, asking his partner, "Did you figure it out?"

Brian K. Morgan said...

Have either of you guys seen the film, House of the Sleeping Beauties? It is a 2006 German film by Vadim Glowna that uses the same source material, a story by Yasunari Kawabata, that was also an earlier Japanese film. I have not seen it but it uses the same basic premiss as the last half of Sleeping Beauty.

Brian K. Morgan said...

Clarification: not the same source material as sleeping beauty. The same source material for two different movies. Just wondering if either presented it to better effect.

Jason Hedrick said...

Evidently, according to the imdb, there are two previous Japanese versions, "House of the Sleeping Virgins" '68, and "House of Sleeping Beauties" '95. There is also a Spanish version from 2002 listed called "Sleeping Beauties," directed by someone named Eloy Lozano. And the German version you mentioned from 2006. And, no, I have seen none of these, though it appears the German version is available for streaming only on Netflix.