In considering the heterosexual desire seen in film, Laura Mulvey noted that ‘In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.’ (Mulvey, 1975: 837). This concept of activity and passivity in relation to gender is particularly apt when considering Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty (2011). Leigh’s film chooses to actively subvert the male gaze, and in doing so, highlights the manner in which desire is so often depicted onscreen. Rather than creating a female gaze, as is often the tendency when attempting to underline the depiction of heterosexual male desire, Leigh chooses to portray this desire as questionable.
Leigh’s film is feminist, both in terms of its approach and its narrative. The narrative of Sleeping Beauty stems from Leigh’s own personal experiences, coupled with her interest in fairy tales and the concept of ‘sleeping girls’. The film, in its sparse mise en scène, subtle dialogue and continued use of one-shot takes, certainly creates a fairy tale quality, and like all classic fairy tales, contains a clear strain of the sinister.
Emily Browning stars as the titular Sleeping Beauty, Lucy, a student whose increasingly dire financial circumstances leads to her employment as a ‘sleeping girl’. Willingly drugged into unconsciousness, Lucy lies unclothed while various men enjoy her physical body. Notably, these men are not permitted to penetrate her, nor leave a mark upon her body, thus effectively never truly possessing her.
It is this thwarted desire that initially marks Leigh’s film as subversive. These men clearly wish to enjoy Lucy, and enjoy her without her knowledge. This idea of enjoying Lucy while she is entirely passive certainly links to Mulvey’s writing, yet these men are unable to be truly active. They are prevented from really being able to enact upon their desire to its full extent, and as such, are rendered passive.
Similarly, Lucy’s very physical state helps to subvert the male gaze. Browning is objectively, conventionally attractive. There is then, a sense that her power lies not only in her physical appearance itself, but the subsequent threat that her physical appearance presents. The clients that procure her services are, notably, frequently elderly and bemoan their lack of sexual prowess. In long shot, Leigh shows these men in stark realism, their elderly appearance made all the more obvious when purposefully juxtaposed with Lucy’s youth.
As Peter Bradshaw noted in his review at the time of release: ‘In contrast to her perfection, their bodies are shrivelled and wrinkled … Leigh’s film exerts a brutal and tactless power in just showing this body in a context which denudes its nakedness of dignity.’ Bradshaw, in his review, rather simplistically refers to this contrast as ‘feminist revenge’, and yet, as Leigh indicates, the contrast here is one of activity and passivity, rather than sexual prowess and impotence.
Despite Lucy’s unconscious state, she is not passive: she resists possession throughout the film. The men, thanks to Lucy’s state, attempt to project their phantasy upon her. This would have been impossible without Lucy being unconscious. If she was conscious she would be able to reject their phantasy. Yet, rather than validating such behaviour, Leigh is, through the staging of such scenes, clearly emphasising the nature of this male desire. In Sleeping Beauty, a female’s sexuality has to be forcibly passive in order for the man’s to be active. Leigh, in portraying this, is able to highlight to the audience the sinister nature of such sexual desire.
Furthermore, despite the numerous scenes featuring Lucy’s nude body, the film does not act, or function as a voyeuristic pleasure for the male onlooker. As Mulvey writes: ‘traditionally, the woman displayed has functioned on two levels: as erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium’ (Mulvey, 1975: 838). Here, while Lucy is certainly functioning as an ‘erotic object for the characters within the screen story’ (Ibid) she is not functioning as one for the viewer. This lack of eroticism for the viewer largely stems from our lack of identification with those who view her as such within the film itself. These men that view and perceive her as such an object are presented as distasteful and insidious, their sexuality is not normalised and as such, we choose to reject their view of Lucy.
Thus the film, coupled with Leigh’s distinctive stylistic choices and dispassionate quality, enhances and imbues her work as entirely feminist. Leigh’s chosen style ensures that her work complicates the issues of spectatorship and voyeurism. Leigh’s film, despite its content, is utterly unerotic, an uneroticism informed through the men themselves.
Mulvey, L. (1975) ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’ in Braudy, L. And Cohen, M. (eds) (1999) Film Theory and Criticism, 5th Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 833- 844
By Siobhan Denton
Siobhan Denton, 27, is a teacher and writer living in Wales, UK. She holds a BA in English and an MA in Film and Television Studies. She is especially interested in depictions of female desire, performative gender and transitions from youth to adulthood. She tweets at @siobhan_denton and writes at The Blue and the Dim (https://theblueandthedim.wordpress.com/)