Friday, 28 October 2011



Where's the line? When does it stop being erotica and start being porn? When does it stop being a serious character piece about sexuality and start being a piece of nudie smut? Doubtless this serious new Australian film fancies itself as a proper serious film, worthy of serious consideration as a serious exploration of sex and fantasies and prostitution, but is it really? Personally, I don't believe it. Certainly I can imagine that's what they intended when they started out, but the end result is less a "serious" film and more an arty bit of softcore porn, whatever its inclusion in competition at Cannes might indicate; and surely if you're making a film that involves a lot of frank nudity, you can't be unaware that it's going to be seen by some as a dirty movie, regardless of your original intentions. Pornography is, after all, in the wrist of the beholder. And this IS porn: for all the artiness it's just an old man's grubby fantasy.

The Sleeping Beauty is Lucy (Emily Browning, also seen in the similarly suspect Sucker Punch), a young student who, in addition to a dreary part time jobs in a cafe and an office, signs up as a "silver service waitress": a position which starts off as merely serving port and brandy in her underwear to a gathering of wealthy gentlemen, but leads to her agreeing to being drugged and placed naked in a bed for the old coots to do with her as they will, with the exception of full intercourse. The payments for this service enable her to abandon her tedious office job (which appears to consist entirely of photocopying), and to take a luxury apartment, but is she happy? And what exactly are these men doing to her while she's unconscious?

Deep in the bowels of niche fantasy porn are two particular areas of "special interest": one where the girl is asleep and thus unaware of what's happening to her, and one where the barely legal girl is partnered by a wrinkled and flabby pervert in possession of a bus pass. Neither concept is particularly edifying - the first is horrible close to a rape fantasy - and it is hard to see why any girl would consent to such a scenario, even given the substantial cash rewards. Even though no penetration actually takes place - the men freely admit they're too old to get it up any more - she's still being groped, pawed and manhandled and she's completely oblivious to it. Frankly, "ewwww".

But as much as it might seem fixated on a naked girl and her pensioner clients, it's still an art movie, not just in its long takes with a frequently static camera and the lack of a musical score (raising the question of why there's a  credited composer), but in the questions that aren't answered. What was with the handful of berries? Or the drooling woman on the bus? Why did Lucy burn a A$200 bill? Why was there a scene in which nothing happened except Lucy getting out of bed, putting her pants on and getting back into bed? And, most importantly, what happened next? Just as the film seemed to be developing a narrative, where Lucy might find out exactly what happens to her..... it stops. Roll end credits, leaving you yelling "And.....?!?!" Leaving out the things that might be significant, such as Lucy's reaction to seeing precisely what these men get up to, and filling the time with stuff that isn't (one of the gents recites a meandering anecdote about finding an old book for absolutely no reason), it's frustrating and annoying as well as needlessly obscuring the point.

With its main character not only happy to let strange men do whatever they want with her body but to remain ignorant of it, it's tempting (and easy) to conclude that it's actually misogynist. But I'm not sure: the film's writer-director, the producer, associate producer and line producer are women, and it's "presented" by Jane Campion, whatever that means (aside from reminding you of The Piano). Certainly if they'd all been men it would have been far easier to dismiss it as cheap smut for the raincoat trade. As it is, though, is it a statement about something? What? The only thing that's left clear at the end, unfortunately, is that Emily Browning looks nice naked. And if that's what you want out of a movie, buy some porn. At least be honest about it.


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