Sleeping Beauty opens today; Sydney Film Fest’s Q&A with Julia Leigh, Jane Campion and Margaret Pomeranz

Once there was a princess condemned by an evil fairy godmother to sleep for a hundred years. All that could wake her was the kiss of a prince strong and brave enough to enter the enchanted palace.

Julia Leigh’s version of Sleeping Beauty – a modern and controversial rendering of the tale – opens in cinemas nationally today.

“She’s not a traditional heroine that we walk every step of the way with,” explains Margaret Pomeranz at Sydney Film Festival’s Q&A session with Leigh and mentor Jane Campion. “It’s challenging to enter her world and follow her in it. You either like the mystery or feel frustrated that it doesn’t give an answer.”

Lucy, a twenty-something woman trying to make her way in the world uses her body as currency; to earn money by cleaning tables in a cheap restaurant, being a guinea pig for medical students, and ultimately offering herself as a drugged and passive object for male clients willing to pay enough to access her body.

Here, the evil fairy godmother is a high class madame, played to understated perfection by Rachael Blake, and it is the death of an old man rather than a prince’s kiss that finally wakes Lucy into consciousness but not before we have been immersed in her horrifyingly compelling and elegantly told journey.

A Lioness
Leigh is first and foremost a writer. Her first novel, The Hunter, won international praise and is currently being made into a feature film starring Willem Dafoe. Leigh followed this with the gothic novella Disquiet. Her success as a fiction author gave her the confidence to try her hand at script writing and to defend that script against the inevitable pressures of the film industry.

“Julia was like a lioness, she wouldn’t let anyone touch it,” recalls Jane Campion, (Dir: The Piano, Bright Star) who mentored Leigh at the request of Screen Australia. “You can get your vision eroded in this business. She took a very bold way, a brilliant way. I read her novels – she’s a genius. I felt honoured to be there to help her get her feet into cinema.”

Campion was speaking at a public Q&A at Sydney’s Events Cinema after the movie’s screening. The occasion was attended by Leigh and hosted by film critic Margaret Pomeranz.

“I made a step in my writing life to write the script,” Leigh explains. “I showed it to close friends and got it to the stage personally where I thought, this is what it is. Twelve producers or more said ‘no’, some were flat out ‘no way.’ Some with a pitying look. Some loved it but said it was missing a third act or needed a massive amount of rewriting (but) I was very clear, this is the script.”

The reluctance by producers to take the risk is understandable. From the opening shots of Lucy swallowing a rubber tube to later scenes of her naked, unconscious body being groped by unknown men, Leigh invites us to regard, empathetically or not, Lucy’s confronting choices and experiences.

There was an additional gamble in Leigh’s directorial decision to shoot long scenes with no cutting and therefore no backup coverage.

“A lot of people who signed didn’t show,” says Campion. “They got overwhelmed by the risk. I have respect for Julia and producer Jessica Brentnall for doing a piece of work that was a vision, not just a product.”

She’s not a traditional heroine
Sleeping Beauty never attempts to elicit audience sympathy through conventional narrative. Rather, its style is detached, almost voyeuristic, or as Leigh describes it, ‘a tender, steady witness.’

It was this detachment that provoked some criticism at the Q&A.

“I don’t know if I like Lucy or not, I felt disconnected from the character,” was one comment.

“Do you have to like everybody?” Campion challenges the audience. “It’s interesting to be disconnected or dislike a character and yet find the story compelling. I see a lot of young people very disconnected from life, from the people who own the power.”

Leigh remained unfazed, and reluctant to fill in more of Lucy’s backstory.

“I think you have enough information on her,” she adds.” Wouldn’t you have been disappointed or felt like vomiting if I’d done a flashback to childhood trauma?”

Emily Browning performs a stellar turn as the enigmatic Lucy, nominated for the Best Actress award at Cannes this year.

“Emily really understood the script,” says Leigh. “She’s very brave. She knew what the role was and had the quality of something latent underneath.”

Sleeping Beauty may have polarised audiences but it was nominated for the Palme D’Or at Cannes, Official Competition at Sydney Film Festival and has already sold to 45 territories worldwide.

“The cinema is a dark room where I can loosen the edges of myself and get very absorbed,” says Leigh.

Her powers of storytelling encourage us to do the same.

Sleeping Beauty opens nationally today.
By Christine Westwood

Christine Westwood is Picture Editor for The Australian arts and travel and The Weekend Australian Magazine, Wish and The Deal. She has written pop culture articles for The Australian, Sunday Telegraph, Yen and Pavement magazines


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