Does anyone need a reason to be sexually reckless? I’m not sure. For much of my adult life, I’ve been sexually reckless (or careless, or heedless—take your pick) and I don’t know that a camera following me around would have picked up on any explanations as to why. But we expect more from art than we expect from life, which is why Sleeping Beauty, an Australian film about a young woman who will submit to anything for money, is such a disappointment.
Main character Lucy (Emily Browning) is like a lot of college students: pretty, promiscuous, apathetic, and broke. She holds a variety of odd jobs, including cafe janitor, human guinea pig, and Girl Who Operates A Xerox Machine, yet she never makes enough to pay her rent. Her family situation is uncertain, though we are let in on the existence of an equally broke astrologer mother. We have no indication of what she’s studying in school, what matters to her in life, or who matters to her, except for an alcoholic peer named Birdman whom she brings groceries and pointless chat. She and Birdman go back a few years. We know there’s an unfulfilled promise of a romance between them because Birdman says as much, but that’s about it. When we’re first introduced to him, Lucy casually makes him a bowl of vodka and cereal as they banter with each other in affected tones (“And how are you?” “Oh, I’m very well.”) It’s so dumb.
In her free time, Lucy hangs out a bar that’s a total sausage fest—I’m talking like 20 businessmen to her one woman; can I get the address please?—and though she’s clearly there looking for trouble, it’s never made clear whether she’s paid for this troublemaking or not. “I want to show you something,” she tells one man as she pulls up her hem to show him her garters. Then she adds, helpfully, “I want to suck your cock.” Later we see her stumbling home in the broad light of day like a total amateur. (In my world, a working girl usually has the dignity and the cash fever to hire a cab home after she’s done with a date. Unless she lives two doors down or something.)
In spite of this sleeping (heh) around, Lucy’s finances are still in epic fail state, so she answers an ad that results in the potential employer asking her, over the phone, about her breasts. “Pert,” she replies. (I mean, what? Why even bother? What’s she going to say? “Oh, they’re on the saggy side. Shall I still come for an interview?”) Once they meet face to face, Lucy and Clara, the elegant madam, hit it off. Lucy doesn’t hesitate to agree to a blood test and lies, transparently, about knowing how to provide Downton Abbey style table service, which prompts Clara to declare “you’re very talented.” Yes, her skills, such as unzipping her own dress, are legion. Hired! However, Clara warns that Lucy is not to think of this as a career, and that she should treat the $250 an hour she’ll earn as a windfall instead of a reliable stream of income. In spite of this, Lucy is soon calling Clara instead of waiting to be called, entreating that she be kept in mind if more work comes up because she’s got a new lease to pay. Typical.
Lucy’s first gig has her meet a cadre of tannish brunettes in stark, unflattering outfits (I refuse to call them lingerie—what an insult that would be to the real deal) and dramatic, runway demon makeup. These are the upper level, higher paid ladies who get to stay after they serve their six clients dinner. Lucy is sent home alone with her five $100 bills, one of which she lights on fire because yeah, sex workers are always burning what they earn. I assume this is supposed to be a sign of how detached Lucy is from life, as if we need another one of those, or perhaps an indication of how little the money can staunch the gaping hole in her soul that develops after serving strangers wine while in her underwear. Regardless, she goes back for more, and she’s eventually upgraded to being drugged into sleep while a single man does whatever he wants except for penetrate her vaginally. (WHAT ABOUT HER ASSHOLE?)
This is less salacious than it sounds, really. Yes, one man calls her all sorts of names (“little bitch,” “fucking little whore”) and then gives her face a big lick, which is icky. Another man picks her up, staggers with her weight, and unceremoniously drops her on the floor. Mostly though, it’s not violent, merely senseless, anti-erotic and pathetic. For instance, her most regular client is an elderly, slim man with genitals that baffled my boyfriend. “He doesn’t have a cock?” he asked during the guy’s full frontal. “He has one,” I said, knowingly. “It’s just old.” (Sorry, young bucks. If you live into your 70s your cock is probably going to deflate to the point that, when flaccid, it lies flat against your dangly balls and that whole business is going to get super wrinkly and a little melted looking. Damn you, Gravity!) I’m sure the shot of the ancient man arranging Lucy on the bed is supposed to be chilling or at the very least, disturbing, since it’s the first time we see her drugged like this. But having been with my fair amount of old men for money, I was just jealous that she got to sleep through it. What a total cop out! I’m not sure I’m on board with classifying this as sex work. Even those naked human sushi trays exert more effort.
I don’t know if I should dignify this film by cataloging all the ways it doesn’t make sense. But, truly, why doesn’t Lucy just become a proper prostitute like the ones in Satisfaction, an Australian TV show that’s one of the best hooker-based pop culture artifacts of all time—and that also featured a client who wanted his escort to be drugged so she wouldn’t move while he sexed on her. (Must be something about those Aussies?) And why does one of the more seasoned girls tell Lucy she has to make her lipstick match her labia exactly? That is just so dumb! Whose labia are one single uniform color? That matches a lipstick color exactly? And are we talking inner or outer? Don’t Australians call their labia “flaps“? Coming soon to a Sephora near you: Nars “My Flaps” line of blush and lipgloss.
Most film reviewers seemed to have a really hard time watching Lucy’s body go through what it does in this film. Several of them cite the scene where she has a tube fed through her throat into her stomach (as part of her medical work) as being particularly hard to watch. But I would imagine that anyone else who, like me, has had some experience with camera fakery will recognize that the man in the lab coat is probably only moving his fingers over the tubing in such a way that it looks like it’s going ever deeper and deeper. Just as you can do with faking a dildo down your throat. Slight of hand, people. Not to ruin the movie magic—obviously it’s not in the spirit of any film to shout “that’s fake,” because of course it all is. But something about their visceral reactions to this illusion stuck with me. Sex workers (and many other laborers) truly do subject themselves to physical trials that other people avoid, but they often do it with eyes wide open, having weighed the benefits of the money as being greater than momentary physical discomfort. Lucy seeks out these trials because, it’s implied, either she’s fucked up or the world she exists in is fucked up—or both. So Sleeping Beauty honors the well-established lie that anyone selling intimate access to their body is in a bad place emotionally, and is being exploited.
The film closes on a grainy shot of nude Lucy, drugged to sleep, next to the aforementioned ancient client, also naked and also asleep. Low, ominous music suggests there’s something terribly wrong with this picture, and indeed there is. There’s been a failure of empathy and imagination when it comes to creating a believable character to animate the bizarre circumstances of this film. As Sadie Lune says, “I want you to stop punishing me because you can’t imagine being me.”