“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”
“• Margaret Atwood
I won’t make the claim that Sleeping Beauty is a feminist film. But personally speaking, you would have to convince me otherwise.
Sleeping Beauty is the fairy-tale remix, a story told for the modern age that looks past the dreams of princes, being saved, and happily ever after, and into the psyches of men and their desires, as well as the women who attempt to navigate through them.
Lucy is a financially-struggling student with hints of a difficult past. She is a climber, inching her way out of the mess she came from, and by any means necessary: bussing tables, doing low-paying administrative work, being a research guinea pig, paying rent when she can. She exists like many of the working poor, slightly despised and resented, as evidenced by her privileged roommates’ treatment of her, as they wax on about her irresponsibility to not pay rent on time, while comfortably leaving out that it’s their parents who actually own the house. The miscommunication that always happens between the haves and the have-nots is one that seeps throughout the film, as it spins further down the rabbit hole into who provides and who is provided for.
Bound by a trap of cloudy circumstance and limited choice, Lucy applies for a job that exists in the unspoken, though it’s very clear what will be happening. She is interviewed by Clara, an equally restrained character who has found a way to navigate the world of male power and bourgeois, partly by supplying it. Clara and her assistant examine Lucy in the most clinical of ways, stripping her down to her underwear and looking her over like a prized horse or a dog in a Westminster show. Her youth and beauty are worshipped, fetishized, eroticized – something to be gazed upon. Lucy, by all privileged cultural standards valuing youth, thinness, prettiness, and whiteness, is that prize. Clara christens Lucy as “Sarah” and states as one of the best verbal handshakes I’ve seen in a while, “You will never be penetrated, my dear. Your vagina is a temple.” Lucy simply responds: “My vagina is not a temple.”
Thus begins Lucy’s, or really, “Sarah’s” work from the beginnings of serving wine in a dinner party for older gentleman in a Bacchus-like indulgence, providing all the desires one has been told to ever want: caviar, roasted quail, and the adornment of female bodies quietly surrounding the lush interior with its aging, suited faux-royalty. Yet the scenes that follow are so completely detached that its like director Julia Leigh is deliberately mocking the banality of the over-privileged, a drawn sword at the absurdity of the Eyes Wide Shut pomp and circumstance or even the sociopathic, bourgeoisie indulgence of Salo. But with every party, there is always a backdrop and what happens for the guests is completely different from what happens between the wait staff.
Lucy’s work evolves with a silent voyeurism as she transitions from a lingerie wine server into a sleeping beauty. She begins working at Clara’s private quarters as a woman who “sleeps” with men, though, oh so literally. See, Clara specializes in providing actual sleeping women to men who cannot bear the “pain” of being judged by these young women. Sarah provides her consent to let Clara drug her for this sleep and provides a blank canvas for men to act out all their desires and neuroses, pending one rule.
It’s a startling contrast in comparison to Browning’s last movie, Sucker Punch, which was a case study in “strong female characters” where tits and ass are more part of the conversation than what that phrase actual intends. Most reviews of Sleeping Beauty have commented on Lucy/Sarah’s lack of “passion” and her standoffishness. While these are qualities that are celebrated in men (the strong, silent type, if you will), they exist as strikes against women. Women like “Lucy” are ice queens; soulless, blank canvases that men project the best and worst on. Sure, Lucy can exist as this and the film never really gives us a full look at who she is as a whole person, partially because its busy giving us a look at a woman who is just trying to hold it all together as she teeters close to the edge of breakdown. She is a woman who is looking for a way to navigate a world that has been set up for men, with strict rules created by men. I know this woman. I know her very well.
Male fragility and weakness becomes apparent in the reinforcing of their power and brutishness, whether its “Sarah’s” clients or ex-boyfriend who spews resentment at “Lucy” in a short scene that again gives the viewer enough of a back-story to assume a glimpse of the past. “Sarah’s” clients exist within a realm of complete secrecy that’s judgment-free, an act that’s easy when the woman you encounter is asleep. One man, riddled by erectile dysfunction (blatantly stating to Clara, “The only way I can get a hard-on is to eat a truckload of Viagra and have a beautiful woman stick her fingers up my ass. I’m the one that needs the penetration.”), climbs on top of Lucy-Sarah and yells misogynistic insults at her, licking her face, exerting his dominant presence and power over her, all while ever checking in on the status of his flaccid dick. Another client, whose physical size and demeanor is, gently put, intimidating, ends up carrying Lucy-Sarah around like a rag doll, becoming a small child holding his teddy bear. Another client revisits his youth and does nothing but gazes at Lucy-Sarah’s naked body, eventually curling up with her in a moment of assumed vulnerability. It urges the viewer to deeply ask, what exactly is violation? What is it that men fear? What is it that women fear?
The idea of sexualization and erotica is heavy throughout the movie, though, there is nary a trace of actual sexuality or sexual enjoyment (with exception of certain client’s kicks). It’s all a performance, a toxic heteronormativity between the gazers and the gazed upon, an act that, again, exist only by the rules of men. The only actual act of penetration throughout the entire film is when Lucy has a tube put down her throat as part of her work as a lab research subject. If anything, it drives home what many sex workers have been saying for years about using their bodies as an economic resource, though, the only difference seemingly lies in the context.
The only real acts of intimacy we see in the film is when Lucy cares for a troubled friend, providing a sense of normalcy to someone who is very much dying, or when Lucy encounters a woman she worked with at the dinner parties, sleeping heavily on a train ride. She stares at her, eventually wiping a small bit of drool exiting her mouth. The desperation for intimacy and kinship doesn’t need to be said. The act of wiping drool from a woman’s face while fighting back tears says enough.
Choice and circumstance weigh heavy in the film. There is no either/or, there just is, until both cause you to come undone. It’s less The Yellow Wallpaper and more the examination of the way that women, particularly, white women, have been culturally trained to be to keep existing within the world of privilege and access: beautiful, but not too sexy, vulnerable, desired, but not desiring, something to be protected and won, and above all, quiet. Of course, Lucy’s curiosity eventually gets the best of her and she must see what is happening to her while she sleeps so peacefully.
The film ends with more questions than answers, less of a bang, than a whimper. Lucy and Clara have been brought together by circumstance and choice and at one point, grasp together in a moment of desperation, with one scream released. This is the consequences of living in a man’s world.
Earlier in the film, there is a scene of Lucy grabbing holly berries off a tree before she is escorted off to another night in slumber. While in the car, she gingerly drops these from her hand, a small wink at “Hansel and Gretel,” a reminder that yes, she was here. She existed and if she follows those berries back, maybe, just maybe, she will find the way home.