Screens at CIFF: 10/16 & 10/17
World premiere: 11 May, 2011, Cannes Film Festival

Fairy tales are of their nature an obvious place for revisionist feminist theory: the bulk of them, after all, are moral tales teaching proper behavior in pre-industrial societies where women, if they were phenomenally lucky, were permitted to speak to men other than their husbands and fathers.

And so it is that of late we've had a run of gender-theory fairy tale upgrades: some of them quite successful, as Catherine Breillat's Bluebeard, and some of them are completely fucking terrible, as Catherine Hardwicke's Red Riding Hood.* The most aggressively strange of them, however, is surely Sleeping Beauty, the screenwriting and directing debut of highly-regarded Australian novelist Julia Leigh: it's an arch (at times, much too arch for its own good) intellectual study of how eroticism is coded in visual media, that treats the classic tale so loosely and so ironically that the very title is almost a sick joke.

Lucy (Emily Browning) is a college student looking for a bit of extra cash; she finds it by answering a curious personal ad that puts her in touch with Clara (Rachael Blake), the madam of a most particular collection of sex workers. These girls - whose number now includes Lucy - serve elegant dinners to fabulously wealthy and generally old men, in the nude, or close enough to it as makes no difference. That's all. "Your vagina will not be penetrated", Clara informs Lucy, and the set of her voice makes both "vagina" and "penetrated" as comprehensively non-sexy as those words have ever been.

A little easy money proves too tempting for Lucy, and though her new boss begs her not to look on this as a career, she jumps at the chance to make even more money by doing something yet stranger: Clara gives her a completely safe drug that puts her into a coma for several hours. During this time, the same group of fabulously wealthy, old, and impotent men get to fondle her and speak to her as they will. "Your vagina will not be penetrated", Clara says again, and it's even less erotic this time.

Even as a plot synopsis, doesn't that just sound like all kinds of an intellectual exercise? Because that's absolutely what it is, and this Sleeping Beauty's great triumph and its most particular limitation. A limitation in that there is virtually no feeling involved: Leigh has ideas to explore and social models to attack, but she simply does not care about Lucy as a character, only as a thematic vehicle. And while Sleeping Beauty still works very well for what it is, it never moves out of the head and into the heart - and Lord Almighty, never even withing spitting distance of the loins, though of course that's part of Leigh's strategy: the more she showcases Browning's naked body, the less it is exploitation, the less it even registers as sex, not that the immensely creepy things those impotent old white dudes get up do as they writhe about atop or next to the nubile girl's still form would be sexy to anyone with the more socially acceptable assortment of kinks - one day, somebody is going to pair this film with Sucker Punch, and explore the diametrically opposed ways in which Julia Leigh and Zack Snyder objectify Emily Browning, and it will be a phenomenal piece of criticism that I shall eagerly read.

Subtle it really isn't: plainly, this is Leigh's epic attempt to explode the male gaze of cinema until not even the rubble remains, and she is hugely successful, as an exercise, anyway (nothing, I suppose, is going to make male gaze a thing that does not exist - as long as one teen boy hunts down one piece of pornography, that tradition will be alive and well). She's a natural filmmaker: though Sleeping Beauty often reveals the inflexible over-planning a certain kind of first-timer, is prone to, some of her aesthetic gestures are so perfectly right that it never seems like she's fumbling - the gauzy nightmare staging of the sleeping sequences in particular reveals an intuitive understanding of how the camera works that speaks to one heck of a career, if Leigh decides to pursue it.

It's not "fun" by any stretch, but it's not entertainment, anyway. It's a conversation starter and a sociological argument. Which means that a lot of the ordinary yardsticks we use to judge a movie simply don't apply. To be perfectly honest, the film's overwhelming emotional chilliness bothers me somewhat: Leigh is so mercilessly unconcerned with what happens to Lucy that she rather plays at times into the same trap that the masculine art she's bulldozing does, which is to reduce the girl to her body and what she does with it, rather than attend to her mind and personality. Not always; at times there is a very restrained but nonetheless beautifully tragic attention paid to the confusion and fear in the girl's mind, particularly in the ending scene, which is an elegantly queasy game of audience baiting. Sleeping Beauty is a bit too clinical to be for all tastes, of course, but it's kind of brilliant for what it is, and even riveting in a very unique, anti-thriller sort of way.