Frustratingly opaque, Australian novelist-turned-filmmaker Julia Leigh's debut feature opens with an unforgettable image: A young woman, earning some extra cash as a medical-research subject, patiently sits as a long tube is threaded down her esophagus. Sharp and precise as its tableau might be, though, Sleeping Beauty never burrows into the brain, and its tenuous provocations fizzle out quickly.
That porcelain-skinned sprite we first see gagging in a sterile science lab is Lucy (Emily Browning), a university student who works other menial jobs: pub waitress, office filer. Off the clock, she nurses drinks in upscale bars and lets a coin toss determine which odious middle-aged stranger she's having sex with that night. Her penchant for passivity and servility — plus a need for more cash — makes her an ideal candidate for wine-pouring at a kinky "silver service" that caters to wealthy geriatrics, a gig that pays $250 an hour. Instructed by her shift supervisor to apply lipstick that exactly matches the color of her labia, Lucy tops off drinks in lacy white fetish wear while the other servers and creaky aristos are arranged as if in a Marina Abramovic performance piece costume-designed by the Marquis de Sade. Soon, the soignée proprietress of this enterprise, Clara (Rachael Blake), taps Lucy for even more specialized, lucrative work: going into deepest, dreamless, drug-induced slumber while the gray-haired clients do whatever they wish with her, though house rules apply: "No penetration, and take care not to leave any marks."
Almost everything that happens to Lucy during her unconscious state remains as mysterious to us as it does to her.
The movie nods to the zonked-out damsel of the centuries-old fairy tale, but Sleeping Beauty isn't a reinterpretation of the heroine of yore. Wrestling with that myth would require, at the very least, a point of view — a willingness to wake up.