"We were just talking about which one of us is going to fuck you."
It's interesting what can count as joyful and light when put into a certain context. I have yet to find a film to make the subject of rape seem light in comparison to further suffering, but my patience will keep me on that a bit longer. "Sleeping Beauty" starts off with a group of short vignettes, between a doctor slipping a long string down our protagonist's throat, a routine day of work, and then cocaine and prostitution at a bar. In this process, the film sets its own stage quite exactly, with a rightly offset mix of intense discomfort and odd enjoyment. It's just a bit of 6 minutes, but it works in its contained form to strike a tone without forwarding story just yet.
The coke snorting, table waiting, part-time prostitute is Lucy, played by Emily Browning who you might remember from "Sucker Punch", but it's better if not. Consider this her breakthrough, which it really is in comparison. And while you may imagine those 6 minutes are more than enough to fulfill a satisfying character, she has much more responsibilities than just that, without getting too far into it. She is a bold personification of just about every person at that stage in their life. Between the contemplative and self-constructive years of youth and the solid inextinguishable stage of adulthood. Not with purpose. Not asking for purpose. Half-baked, though the film is anything but.
As the title emphasizes, "Sleeping Beauty" eventually takes on the shape of a sort of dark fairy tale. The princess is whisked away to a new and complicated world, and a new life, as signified by her taking on the name of Sara in her new job. The film flourishes in the design of the building she does her work in. The doors a nourishing wood, rails a dazzling marble spiral, the walls an impassive tone, all aid to the feeling that we've fallen into some dark wood. The job, or at least the specifics of it, are far from obvious at first. The film draws itself out ever so much on numerous occasion, never exactly specifying the what or why, but stretched and strained in a way that's nonetheless distinct. The occasional indiagnosable moments of strangeness serve not as bizarre curve balls, but instead reminders that you're in a very special place right now.
When the film finds its way into the second half, her job expands from being a mere sexual waitress for elderly men to being something more disturbing. She's the prize toy now for these elderly hounds, mostly unsympathetic to their uttermost core. She lies ever so undecidedly against their crude bodies, reflecting their crude souls. Those taking this simply as a study of sexuality are blinded to the simple comparisons of the characters sharing a bed. There's a horror to it, signified most brilliantly so by Peter Carroll's leveling monologue he gives before crawling into bed with young Lucy.
True, this is a young girl being molested by older men, but the fact that she's not been "penetrated" by life gives these scenes such a stronger meaning. By the end of the film, we have a finite idea of who she is, which we didn't have before. The time she spends with these men more experienced than she is gives her that dimension and makes her complete. The brutality of the film's truthful message is that she was only capable of this growth because of these events. It's a fairly simple story, but that aids ever so much into the fairy tale identity of the film. And if nothing else, it is a strong debut for director Julia Leigh.