Not much is very clear about Sleeping Beauty other than the following: it played at Cannes, which should give you an idea of what you might be in for, and Emily Browning (the appropriately-named “Baby Doll” of Sucker Punch) gets naked a lot, so there you go.
Browning plays Lucy, a college student who fills her days with a variety of menial jobs: lab rat, pub waitress, office drone. At each of these, she engages in mindless, repetitive tasks that she performs without complaining and with the same disaffected, bored/stoned look on her face (which may come from Browning’s limited acting abilities more than writer-director Julia Leigh’s intentions). By night she hangs out at cocktail lounges, letting a series of coin tosses choose what man she will have sex with and when. She frequently visits a shut-in who seems to be terminally ill (or suicidal, or an alcoholic, or something), with whom she exchanges a self-conscious series of canned pleasantries before getting under the covers for what seems to be platonic snuggling.
Despite the fact that she self-describes herself as “flush,” Lucy inexplicably always seems to be in need of more money (though the concept of “needing money” and practice of “earning money” may be just another two more of her robotic rituals). Her passive nature and odd instinct to serve makes her perfect for her latest job as a lingerie-clad wine-pourer at parties catered to rich old men who aren’t beyond suddenly shoving the girls to the floor if the mood suddenly strikes them. The gig pays $250 an hour, but Lucy soon gets a promotion — her new “position” (so to speak) involves her taking a powerful sleep-inducing drug that renders her the unconscious plaything for these old farts, who are allowed to indulge their every fantasy with her limp body as long as they follow two rules: No penetration, and don’t leave any marks.
Sleeping Beauty is fascinating for a while; it’s meticulously designed, impeccably shot and Browning is mesmerizingly beautiful. But Leigh’s refusal to let us know at least a little about where she’s going with all this makes for an ultimately tedious and frustrating experience. The film is often surreal, occasionally absurd and has more random monologues than an episode of Deadwood — Leigh is most certainly throwing a lot of style all over the place, but after a while you’ll start to wonder about (and be distracted by) the distinct lack of, you know, basic movie stuff like character development. We never really never have any idea why Lucy is the way she is or what she even wants out of life — as much as Lucy is a passive toy in a man’s world, she is also simply a vessel for Leigh’s intangible thematics: a concept more than a character in something that’s more the outline of a college essay than a movie.
Sure, it’s an “art film,” a label that often allows filmmakers to get away with being inexplicable. But it’s also a label that sometimes condemns a film to immediate dismissal if it doesn’t have anything else to offer its audience other than a naked pixie wallowing in joyless debauchery all in the name of some vague feminist crusade.