The annual year-end bun grapple over at Critic’s Notebook brings the inevitable list: Ten films I liked from 2011.
At this rate next December’s apocalypse will be caused entirely by the posting online of more Top Ten Films of 2012 lists than the cosmos can allow.
Updated to add:
I didn’t realise that Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty – that’s Emily Browning above, in the process of applying for the job – never got a review at Critic’s Notebook when it was released in the UK or subsequently when it broke cover in the US. It’s also one of those films that seems to have left the New Model Collective of film reviewers in a bit of a muddle. So for the record, set the Wayback Machine for Things I Wrote Down Last October (now with fewer typos):
Julia Leigh Sleeps Furiously: Sleeping Beauty
None of the many calamitous ways in which the sight of old men queueing up to fondle a comatose Emily Browning could have gone off the rails actually happen in Sleeping Beauty, since it turns out that Julia Leigh is a) a clinician with a painter’s eye for compositions and tones, and b) not mucking about. She’s also not exactly breaking new ground, pulling on threads already tackled in one form or another by Kubrick and Bunuel, and indeed by Jane Campion, whose name on the label seems to have confused those forgetting that Campion’s waded out into frustrated sexuality and the human textures of homesteads before. But not quite like this. To say Leigh scores a bullseye on some complex ambiguities of masculine power and feminine voids is an understatement. Sleeping Beauty is taut as a stretched rubber band, set squarely in the art house wheelhouse with acres of still compositions and sound design to let the mind roam around, but with the tonal refresher of the whole Australian setting and screen acting style kicking in all the time. It’s also roughly as erotic as eye surgery, and anyone detecting actual misogyny or anti-feminism in its sights and sounds deserves a close encounter with the mighty pillow of truth, especially if they’re male. In fact your reaction may hinge entirely upon exactly which side of life’s median line you happen to find yourself.
Leigh doesn’t bother to hide the cogs, so Sleeping Beauty is transparent. Browning is orally penetrated for money in the name of science in scene one and doesn’t get much joy from it, so her half of the agenda is in plain sight from the off. The meatier side comes later via the three old men who queue up for a grope, three fearless old actors whose conflicted and conflicting horrors are only slightly weakened by noticing that one of them was in Mad Max when the world was younger. Some reviewers have detected pretension everywhere, but the film’s only actual tinge of the stuff comes via a long literary monologue delivered straight to camera by Old Man One (the interweb tells me it’s a story by Ingeborg Bachmann), shortly before he bares a bod that looks in need of a thrash with a carpet beater and is revealed to be hung like a dormouse. Not sure that bravery is quite the word for that.
All the rigid lines and staged country-house formality of it keep the focus squarely where Leigh intends it to be: on the minds rather than the bodies. Rachel Blake’s madam is carved from some kind of marble, and if her deportment wasn’t all you needed to know about her then the way her pinky finger locks at precisely thirty degrees while pouring the tea fills in the gaps. Leigh uses fades rather than cuts, the classic metaphor for decay and unconsciousness, and builds them into an Aussie setting with all its body consciousness and free-wheeling machismo intact – states of mind which are then unpicked by Leigh with a laser microscope, in a manor-house lit by southern hemisphere sunlight. Emily Browning’s naked body is on screen so often you almost ignore it, but the varying views and vistas out of the windows she parades in front of at different points in the plot are at least as significant. Look at the framing of her alabaster body among the other olive-skined brunettes and tell me this director isn’t in complete control of mood, tone and perspective.
Browning’s bravery in doing this thing is beyond question, and at least her style looks a better fit with the actual story here than it was in Sucker Punch. But the dilemma that always hangs around screen portrayals of shallow characters applies: casting someone who’s not a born firebrand might suit the story, but dents the film. Browning is obliged to downplay so far she’s practically planted in the ground, swinging between being a hollowed-out void to strangers and a conflicted bitch to people she knows. She comes across as an emptier vessel than the investigation underway can really use. Faced with a cameoing Amazonian brunette I’d not seen before named Mirrah Foulkes, whose six-foot black-clad face-decorated usually-topless frame glides around as if following lines of magnetism while she radiates the kind of air that could lead a man to his doom, Browning seems lost for words. She wasn’t the only one.