Cannes Film Festival: the 'radical passivity' of Emily Browning in 'Sleeping Beauty'


The last time I saw Emily Browning on screen was this past March when the Australian starlet was throwing herself into the role of Baby Doll, a sexually abused chick who who ends up lobotomized and catatonic in Zack Snyder’s slickly stylized exploitation pic Sucker Punch. Now I’m at Cannes, where the sun is beating down, the celebrity gawkers are staking territory for their folding chairs hours to get a good view of movie stars ascending the steps of the Palais, the little French dogs are pooping in the side streets, the critics are talking about cinema and iPads, and here’s Emily Browning again.

This time, in Sleeping Beauty,  she plays Lucy, a young university student who finds lucrative work swallowing drugs that deaden her into submissive narcolepsy and allow old men to enact erotic fantasies using her unconscious, naked body. As Lucy’s procurer/madam/evil stepmother type (Rachael Blake) tells the girl, “You will go to sleep. You will wake up. It will be as if those hours never existed.” What distinguishes this provocative Cannes arthouse competition entry from the commercial folderol of Sucker Punch is, I guess, that Sleeping Beauty, by first-time Australian writer-director Julia Leigh, is presented as a feminist exploration (Jane Campion is prominently listed as a mentor). And Sucker Punch can be dismissed as, you know, a cheesy fanboy fantasy.  I’m not sold on the distinction.

It’s Leigh herself who uses the dubious phrase “radical passivity” in accompanying production notes to describe Lucy’s approach to life, an attitude the young woman applies not only to her sex work but also to the three other jobs she holds down to (barely) make ends meet: She sells herself as a medical subject (wherein a researcher sticks an awfully long tube down her gullet); she buses tables at a charmless pub; and she does office gruntwork, photocopying documents. All three jobs use parts of her body but none of her mind. Oh, and she also turns occasional tricks at bars.

It’s my hunch that these are not the only jobs available to smart, worldly young university women, even as dreamed up by feminist storytellers trying to make a point. But then, I don’t live in the neighborhood. Anyway, by comparison, Lucy’s kinky sex job — found through an ad in the student newspaper — can be counted as a kind of skill-set advance. Certainly the pay is better.

Leigh, an award-winning novelist, makes Sleeping Beauty intentionally difficult to follow, demanding the viewer work hard to be rewarded with scenes of wrinkled old man flesh and flawless young girl flesh. Relationships between characters are never explained. Some scenes are little more than a five-second view of a room or an action — a quick pic meant to convey a mood (existential despair? psychotic personality disorder? the female sexual condition?) rather than to advance any story.  In one scene, women dressed in fashion bondage-gear act as waitstaff to the same old “princes” who will later pay for bed time with their young princess.

Cannes screenings, especially of challenging films, defy instant analysis, let alone opinionization. (That doesn’t stop critics from opining, instantly, but I’m not sure the quick-time activity benefits either the film, the critic, or the reader.) Me, I’m still trying to figure out Lucy’s relationship to her apartment roommates and her dying male best friend: The only man she cares about is the only man sexually incapacitated by alcoholism. What does that mean?

Anyhow, I just wanted to let you know, Emily Browning is playing a Baby Doll once again.

Comments (17 total) Add your comment
  • Mike

    I don’t remember Emily’s character being “sexually abused,” which seems to be one of Lisa’s main complaints with SuckerPunch. There was almost an altercation at the end of the movie, but that was it, right? Did I forget something?

    • Huffy

      Not on screen but most people interpret Sucker Punch as being a story about coping with sexual abuse. The opening scene with her step-father is definitely very suggestive of this even if sex is never explicitly shown.

    • E.B. Berman

      It may not have been explicit, but I also felt it was strongly implied that she and/or her sister had been – or were in imminent danger of getting – sexually abused.

    • half baked

      Sucker Punch implied heavily that Baby Doll and the rest of the girls were being sexually abused by the orderly (and pimping them out to other men). The dream levels are where the girls go in their minds to escape the sexual abuse. Zack Synder said on the extended DVD there is a scene where Baby Doll gets raped on camera. It was removed to get the PG-13 rating.

  • RayT

    This film sounds so good! As soon as I saw the trailer, I’ve been excited to see it. Keep the Cannes updates coming, Lisa. I’m eager to hear the buzz on the new Lars von Trier film.

  • Khoff

    This sounds terrible. I have no interest in ever seeing it.

    • Liz Lemon

      Agreed. The trailer is boring and the whole film seems like some type of lifetime movie.




    Thanks for a good read.


    This movie seems on your digital paper also mainly focusing on emotions of the characters au contraire to only the conventional approach to the plot and the storylines. Speaking for myself, if that’s the case, I won’t have a problem with this kind of movie since many Japanese films are simply more or less the same.


    What seems a problem is the fact that she remained unconscious while they were giving pleasure (to themselves) – it sounded disturbing here even though she did know what she was doing. . . But this is CANNES; so, there’s still hope.

  • Dan

    In SuckerPunch there is a strong suggestion that Babydoll’s stepfather was sexually abusive. It was hinted at and not more directly handled probably in order to maintain that PG13 rating he was contractually obligated to meet. The metaphor of the dreamland in SuckerPunch also indicates that all of the ladies are being sexually abused by the head orderly or people he sells out their services to. The theme that the Devious prey on the Helpless is a running theme throughout.

  • Sam

    People need to stop saying that Sucker Punch was a nerd fantasy movie for boys. Yes, the girls weren’t wearing a whole lot. Well, neither were the soldiers in 300 and he made that. I felt like Sucker Punch was a great film, beautifully designed, acted and made–with a fantastic soundtrack. Haters need to get lost.

    • Maggie

      Just because 300 had lots of scantily clothed men doesn’t mean that Sucker Punch wasn’t a nerd fantasy movie for boys. They are different movies after all.

  • Sean C

    Wasn’t 300 a guys movie too? I mean, all the adrenaline, fighting and so on? And then the few women in the film were there to pleasure the guys.
    There was one strong woman in 300, and what happens to her? She gets raped. But that was Frank Miller’s writing, not Snyder’s.

  • Karen

    Um… I hope Lisa realizes that Anne Rice wrote the novel “Sleeping Beauty” that this film is obviously based on. Disney’s version is still the best!
    If you have to drug it, chain it or otherwise tie it up… you need to see a shrink… because that’s not love boys… that’s trying to feel in control… in a world in which you have no control.

    • half baked

      No the director said the movie is based on ‘the House of the Sleeping Beauties’ by Yasunari Kawabata.

    • Abz

      not to mention anne rice’s ‘sleeping beauty’ trilogy was absolutely nothing like this movie’s plot. that was a stylized fairy tale land with the protagonist (and other characters) sexually used in order to strip her/them of ego and arrogance, and to serve in elaborate harem-like settings. this is very much a modern world setting, and is far more about a new way to prostitute oneself with less moral and psychological quandaries. and i don’t think anyone who works in the sex industry does it for ‘love’ or even control.

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  • lvoutlet

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