The feminist aspect of Sleeping Beauty (Leigh, 2011) can surely not be underestimated: Leigh’s film is utterly embroiled and entangled with issues of femininity and female sexuality. As such, the film can surely only be understood through a close analysis of its feminist aspect: a feminism that is entirely informed through both narrative, and the nature and manner of the film itself. This essay will attempt to understand and address these issues of feminism and its relation to the look and style of the film itself through utilising ideas and concepts articulated by Stanley Cavell, Gilberto Perez and George Wilson, as well as linking Leigh’s film to the similarly-themed Belle De Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967). Leigh’s film is both complex and multi-layered, containing a number of multifaceted ideas; ideas that are best understood through a multiple, varied reading, utilising a number of different concepts. This essay will look towards Cavell’s concept of the unknown woman, as well as looking towards Perez’s and Wilson’s idea of character consciousness and what Wilson refers to as ‘reflected subjectivity’ (Wilson: 1992, 87). These concepts, when considered individually may not truly illuminate what is interesting about Sleeping Beauty, but in conjunction work together to truly aid our understanding of the film, in turn informing our understanding of Leigh’s feminist intent.
Leigh, in writing and directing the film, discusses both her inspiration and her intent, referring to what she calls ‘Wonder Cinema’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). Leigh states that she hoped to create a film which elicited a specific audience response, leading the audience to question what they have viewed: ‘“Did I really see that?” and “Did I really hear that?” and “Can such a thing really exist?”. Holding the breath. Eyes wide. A response of intense wonder rather than shock. Cinema as wunderkammer, wonder-room.’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online) Leigh’s aim then is clearly to inspire her audience, to perhaps invoke her audience towards action.
The concept of Sleeping Beauty stems from Leigh’s own personal experiences and interests, as well as her familiarity and interest in the fairy tale and the concept of ‘sleeping girls’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). For Leigh, ‘the film is in response to all of these things’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online), further stating that she ‘for “no reason” … asked … what it would be like to take a job as a sleeping beauty’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). Leigh’s ‘Sleeping Beauty’ of the title is Lucy, a young student whose financial circumstances, juggling numerous forms of employment, compel her to seek out other sources of financial gain. Responding to an advertisement, Lucy sees her services employed initially as a ‘gold-service waitress’, Lucy, in a state of undress, serves wealthy men and women, and is later employed as a ‘sleeping girl’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). Willingly drugged into unconsciousness, Lucy lies naked, whilst various men enjoy her physical body, although notably they are not permitted to penetrate her, nor leave a mark upon her body, effectively never possessing her fully. Leigh’s film places Lucy’s young physicality in stark contrast to the age of her clients: ‘The film is only made whole by its concern with age and experience. Clara, the woman who runs the service, and the older men who visit the chamber, stand in relief to Lucy’s youth’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). There is a sense that Lucy’s power lies not only in her physical appearance and youth, but also in the threat that her physical appearance presents. The clients that employ her services notably decry their lack of sexual prowess, Leigh’s camera starkly presents their flaccid penises, ‘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, 2011: Online) Bradshaw, in his review, rather simplistically refers to this contrast as ‘feminist revenge’ (Bradshaw, 2011: Online), and yet, as Leigh indicates, the contrast here is one of age and experience, rather than sexual prowess and impotence. For Leigh, Lucy ‘is possessed by a radical passivity and her perverse provocation to the world runs “My cheek is turned, try me”. How far she is prepared to go, putting herself to the test? What will she do next?’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). Lucy’s relative passivity, and her lack of engagement, permeates the film throughout, creating an interesting paradox between inviting the audience to effectively share the subjective position of a character whose subjectivity is unknown to us. As such Lucy effectively becomes an ‘unknown woman’ (Cavell, 1996: 3), never truly known, nor understood by her audience, yet imbuing certain aspects of the film with her consciousness.
This concept of character consciousness is notably complex, and in turn, not necessarily all encompassing. Despite this, the concept of character consciousness and the idea of ‘reflected subjectivity’ (Wilson: 1992, 87), can undoubtedly aid and deepen our understanding of Leigh’s film, affording a richer reading of Leigh’s film. Interestingly, it would appear that a film can exist within, or as part of, a character’s consciousness despite the character not always being present onscreen, and yet it is important to make a distinction between the film emanating from a character’s consciousness and the film being imbued by the character and their consciousness. The film as a whole does not emanate from Lucy herself, rather particular aspects of the film can be seen as reflecting elements of her personal subjectivity. Thus, in Sleeping Beauty, whilst everything within the film feels as if they ‘are confined to her horizon and aligned with her standpoint’ (Perez, 2000: 76) it is not correct to say that the film’s events and narrative emanates solely from Lucy herself. Rather it is truer to suggest that the film reflects elements of Lucy’s consciousness, largely through the mise en scène itself, thus ‘although a camera does not have consciousness, and cannot therefore literally be an I, it is possible to encode the image in such a way that it gives the impression of being perceived or generated by a consciousness’ (Kawin, 1978: xi). Leigh, in talking of her inspiration for the film, talks of a ‘recurring nightmare in which people unknown were filming me in my sleep. There was an “evil genius” perfection to the dream – the sleeper dreams she is asleep, in her own bed, so the line between sleeping and dreaming disappears. What are they doing to me while I sleep?’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). This concept of Leigh’s, in which the line between creator and subject intermingle, links interestingly to ideas articulated by Kawin: ‘If a film, which is already both the dream of its maker and the dream of its audience, can present itself as the dream of one of its characters, can it, finally, appear to dream itself?’ (Kawin, 1978: 5). Leigh and Kawin both reference the concept of creation, and in turn, the idea of consciousness and subjectivity: For Leigh, the line between the unconscious and the conscious effectively disappears whilst Kawin questions the creative role of the dream itself, further suggesting a link to the idea of character consciousness. In Sleeping Beauty then, whilst Lucy may not always appear onscreen in a conscious state, everything that takes place within the film’s narrative is certainly confined to her horizon and indeed her world as it were; there is little we learn outside of Lucy’s own personal experience. She deliberately chooses to make little, if any, reference to her family, or indeed her personal situation, thus we learn little of her. Notably, it is through other characters’ conversations with Lucy and their interactions that we are able to learn more of her. For example, we learn from her housemates’ accusatory tones that she is late in paying her rent: Lucy herself has chosen to keep that information to herself. Importantly, the film is not emanating from Lucy’s consciousness, but rather the film reflects elements of her subjectivity and thus certain aspects of her consciousness: ‘Subjectivity can be indicated through voice-over, subjective camera, and mindscreen’ (Kawin, 1978:18) In Sleeping Beauty subjectivity is largely indicated through the use of a subjective camera as well as the use of a component of mindscreen, in that Leigh’s film represents elements of subjectivity. The film is notable for its frequent use of one-shot takes, and it is this, coupled with the film’s fragmentary style, featuring self-enclosed scenes lacking any real sense of fluidity, that contributes to the idea of communicating particular aspects of Lucy’s subjectivity and consciousness. Furthermore, the sense of time passing from scene to scene largely unmarked, through the use of these long-takes and the passive nature of Lucy, further adds to this sense of the film reflecting certain aspects of Lucy’s subjectivity; Lucy’s passive nature effectively imbues the dispassionate nature of the film itself. Notably, when Lucy is least engaged emotionally, so the camera fails to engage her, thus she is viewed from a distance, preventing the viewer from engaging with her too; Lucy is consistently unknown to us. In scenes in which she is engaged emotionally, such as her scenes with Birdman, a close friend, the camera is placed far closer to her, allowing us to witness her interactions and emotions. Thus, the frontal composition of the majority of the scenes, frequently viewing Lucy from a distance ‘are used to depict or symbolize reflect aspects of the way in which the character perceives and responds to his or her immediate environment’ (Wilson, 1992: 87). Lucy, in her passivity, frequently fails to engage with her environment, thus the camera too fails to engage Lucy. In this way, her environment too becomes passive: Leigh’s use of neutral, low-contrast colours, particularly the white-washed effect of the science lab, reflects Lucy’s overall dispassion.
Yet, despite this, allowing us to some extent witness elements of Lucy’s subjectivity, she still remains largely unknown to us: we fail to understand many of her actions and are not presented with any form of explanation. Perhaps Lucy herself, in understanding her own actions, does not need to present the viewer with an explanation. Notably, Lucy’s subjectivity, whilst reflected through elements of particular mise en scène and composition, remains largely unknown to us. It must be asked then, is Lucy simply passive, or perhaps more accurately, is she resisting possession?
In analysing this passivity, it is useful to look at Sleeping Beauty in relation to Belle de Jour, arguably an inspiration of Leigh’s film. Severine’s fantasies are certainly more explicitly elements of her own consciousness, and in this way we are able to understand her character and her motivations, whereas Lucy’s motivations remain largely unknown. It is not just erotic fantasies that the viewer is privy to in Belle de Jour, but moments of angst-ridden flashbacks: one brief flashback depicts Severine being molested as a young girl. Not only do such flashbacks give us a sense of Severine as a character, but it also informs our view of her, and our interpretation of her choices. We understand that Severine’s sexual difficulties are likely to stem from such an encounter, and in this sense there is a very real feeling that Severine exists outside of the confines of the film world. Lucy’s world, however, feels entirely confined to the world that she exists within: even during a phone call from her mother we only witness Lucy’s side of the conversation, with Lucy effectively resisting any opportunity to reveal herself. With Severine, there is a clear question of identity at play: ‘question of who are you? … what is it that makes you want to do this?’ (Evans, 2006: Commentary). Lucy however, whilst we may question her actions, resists answering them, a resistance largely informed through the very nature of the film itself: the frontal composition of the majority of the scenes, the almost static camera and the neutral, effectively passive tone of the film itself. It is in this way that Lucy resists possession, arguably more actively than her passive nature may initially suggest: ‘self-consciousness most often expresses itself through mindscreen, characterizing the aural and visual fields as those of its own mention’ (Kawin, 1978: 19)
Interestingly, Severine actively chooses to sleep with men, actively offering her services and allowing penetration. Her decision to undertake her role is clearly motivated by sexual fantasies of masochism, allowing and inviting possession, as well as a fascination and fear of sex. Lucy however, apparently motivated by financial gain, has no such qualms, informing Clara that her ‘vagina is not a temple’ (Leigh, 2011). Lucy has no issue with penetration because she will, despite this, remain the unknown woman, who through her unknowability cannot be possessed. Thus the scenes in which she is unconscious are also the scenes in which she able to resist possession to the greatest extent: here the men have no way of knowing her, or engaging her, through her very state of unconsciousness. She also has no desire to provide pleasure beyond her own physical nature; in contrast, Severine, in her conscious state, actively attempts to provide pleasure for the men she is servicing. In this sense, she is known sexually and possessed mentally. Men are aware of Severine’s own personal pleasures and can use this to possess her; Lucy’s pleasures remain unknown, we never see her being pleasured, and thus do not understand what it is that pleasures her. In a particularly pertinent point of contrast, both Severine and Lucy, after their first employment return home, both choose to burn an item. In Severine’s case she chooses to burn her underwear, the underwear she wore during her sexual encounter, whereas Lucy chooses to burn the money that she has just been paid for her services. Severine’s decision to burn her underwear appears to be less complex than Lucy’s decision: Severine ‘consigns her undergarments to the fire, except one … she retrieves the brassiere as if not entirely unhappy with the afternoon she has spent’ (Evans, 2006: Commentary). For Severine, her underwear represents the act she has just engaged in: she burns the items perhaps in an attempt to try and forget about the event – indeed, after she burns the items she does not return to Madame Anaïs for a week. For Lucy, the burning of the money she has just earned arguably represents something more complex than simple shame or embarrassment. Rather, it represents an attempt to reclaim herself back physically, a way to gain back some form of self-control, as if she is trying to prove to herself that she didn’t need that manner of work but rather chose to embark upon it, and in this way does not need the money. Denying this need surely ensures Lucy’s resistance to possession: if she does not require the money she does not lose her own self-control, nor is she in thrall to others.
Instead Lucy determines to find out what takes place to her whilst she is unconscious, despite Clara’s admonishing, informing Lucy that allowing her to record the events of these visits would betray the trust of her clients. Lucy goes ahead, secreting a camera in order to witness what takes place during these trysts. It is Lucy’s desire to discover what takes place during these moments that further indicates her active nature, as she becomes desperate to know what takes place: ‘the issue of unknownness takes on … the aspects of the woman’s desire to know something, to be educated, where this seems to mean to know that her desire is acceptable and what its satisfaction would look like’ (Cavell, 1996: 20). Whilst Cavell is referring to ‘remarriage comedy’ (Cavell, 1996: 20), this concept of the woman desiring to discover is transferable to Lucy and her desire to discover what happens to her as she sleeps. For Lucy, this moment of unconsciousness, due to her very unconscious state, represents a moment in which she is not in control, and therefore cannot actively resist possession; and yet, paradoxically, it is her unconscious state that also prevents these men from truly possessing her; unable to possess her mentally, and through the ruling of no penetration, not truly able to possess her physically either. Indeed, for these men, Lucy’s inability to be possessed in some cases causes them to blemish her physically, with one client treating her sadistically. This client, the second that we witness employing Lucy’s services, talks to Lucy in an explicitly sadistic manner, able to do so because she is unaware of what is being said; and yet, unaware of what he is saying in turn provides no satisfaction, his words have no impact upon her. Men may attempt to possess Lucy, yet they never truly understand nor attempt to know her: she is unknown through her own resistance as well as the failure of other’s to attempt to understand her. The very composition of the film, the fragmentary structure and the frontal camera position, imbues the film with a sense of knowingness, an omniscient presence perhaps, a passive observer, largely through the reflected elements of Lucy’s subjectivity, a subjectivity ‘manifested by her isolation (“unknownness”)’ (Cavell, 1996: 197). Lucy is certainly isolated, or at least subjectively so: we never see her interact with friends on a familiar level. Certainly, she interacts with people during her time at University and during her hours at work, yet she clearly maintains an unknowing quality. No one appears to really know her, nor understand her, and Lucy’s avoidance at social situations with those known to her ensures her own unknowingness. Lucy thus determines her own ‘unknownness’ (Cavell, 1996: 197): ‘the man’s ignorance … and the genre of comedy from which they derive take their energy from the woman’s story, from her power and process of creation and undoing. In thus raising the question, What does the woman want to know and to be known?’ (Cavell, 1996:23). Lucy remains at all times in control: we never truly understand what she knows herself, nor what she wants to be known, only Lucy herself understands this. There is one instance in the film in which we understand what Lucy wants to understand: she desires to know what takes place during her moments of unconsciousness. Interestingly, it is in these moments that Lucy herself does not know nor understand what takes place. Lucy then, despite her apparent passivity, is imbued with a desire for knowledge and in turn a desire of action. Several times during the film Lucy is shown taking a handful of berries from a tree, holding them in her hand before releasing them into the car. These berries serve several purposes: firstly they present a direct link to the fairy tales that Leigh is inspired by, the berries in their basic form are reminiscent of the pebbles Hansel and Gretel leave for themselves, leaving a trail to find their way back home, further adding to the fairy tale quality Leigh creates. Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly, they represent a form of talisman for Lucy, her collection of the berries feels almost ritualistic, a way for her to remember her life outside of her employment, a way to find her way back to herself.
In order to fully address Leigh’s film, a reading of the scenes in which Lucy is unconscious is crucial, their unknown quality providing the impetus for Lucy’s forced awakening at the end of the film. The first moment of unconsciousness is notable for its almost hallucinatory quality, in part due to the direct address of the elderly man; this direct address combined with a withheld reverse shot, makes for unsettling viewing. As the elderly man speaks, he mentions at length a novel he has read, uttering the words, ‘A man wakes up and cannot bring himself to get out of bed’ (Leigh, 2011); this statement feels oddly pertinent to the position Lucy is currently in and her own state of mind. At that moment, she is physically incapacitated, and thus cannot get out of bed; instead, she needs to find the impetus to force herself to get out of bed, to wake up and understand what is taking place to her. Whilst she is unconscious she is subjected to sadistic verbal abuse, as well as being physically moved and dropped (by the third man we witness). These men, in their own way, all attempt to possess Lucy in some form, most simplistically through her unconsciousness state. Lucy herself must attempt to resist, and for her resistance comes from knowing and understanding what takes place to her. As the film progresses she becomes increasingly fascinated with what is unknown to her: witnessing a woman asleep on a bus, Lucy closely examines the woman, and it is apparent that Lucy, in realising how unaware this woman is of Lucy’s presence, understands how little she is aware of what takes place when she too is asleep. The music during these scenes, or rather the lack of music, adds to the unsettling, disturbing quality of the scene, made all the more disturbing for our awareness and Lucy’s lack of awareness; Leigh ‘wanted the audience’s attention to grow acute, I wanted the on-edge feeling you get when “you could have heard a pin drop”. We used a minimal score to subtly enhance the disturbing magic of the sleeping beauty world’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). It is notable that Leigh refers to these moments of unconsciousness as belonging to another world: they are another world in that they are moments unknown, moments Lucy can never learn of herself, and instead she has to record these moments, viewing them at the film’s culmination. It is interesting that the man Lucy records, in her final moment of unconsciousness, is the first man we witnessed visiting her, the man who spoke of ‘A man wakes up and cannot bring himself to get out of bed’ (Leigh, 2011) before going on to finish with ‘Rise up and walk, none of your bones are broken’ (Leigh, 2011). Again, these words are incredibly pertinent to Lucy’s situation and state: before she was unable to wake, now through recording these moments she is able to witness what has taken place and has effectively woken up. It is interesting that these words so reflect Lucy’s situation; that is not to say that Lucy is aware of the words that are being spoken, but they can perhaps be seen as a further example of a moment of ‘reflected subjectivity’ (Wilson: 1992, 87), again reflecting elements of Lucy’s subjectivity. Certainly the film itself does not stem from Lucy’s own consciousness, but there does appear to be a relationship between elements of Lucy’s subjectivity and these particular words, so relevant are they to Lucy herself.
In a film that contains such a complex display and depiction of eroticism and sexuality, largely male sexuality, a reading that analyses the concept of spectatorship is certainly called for. Leigh’s film complicates the concept of ‘a world ordered by sexual imbalance, [in which] pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female … project[ing] its phantasy on to the female figure which is styled accordingly’ (Mulvey, 1975: 837). Lucy is clearly not passive: she attempts to resist possession throughout the film, despite her being unconscious. In effect, the men are not active: they project their phantasy onto Lucy, whose unconsciousness acts almost as a blank canvas for her clients. If it were not for her unconsciousness these men would surely not have been able to project their phantasy upon Lucy in the same manner: she would have, on some level, consciously rejected their phantasy. Perhaps then, Leigh is making a comment upon the idea of a passive female sexuality and an active male sexuality: in Leigh’s film, for a man’s sexuality to be active, the female’s has to be forcibly passive. Interestingly, despite the clear erotic nature of the film, Lucy never truly feels as if she functioning as a voyeuristic pleasure for the male onlooker: ‘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), and yet Lucy whilst certainly functioning as ‘erotic object for the characters within the screen story’ (Mulvey, 1975: 838), does not truly feel as if she is functioning as an ‘erotic object for the spectator within the auditorium’ (Mulvey, 1975: 838). This lack of eroticism on Lucy’s part largely stems from a lack of identification with those who view her as an erotic object: ‘by means of identification with him, through participation in his power, the spectator can indirectly possess her too’ (Mulvey, 1975: 840); Leigh prevents us from identifying with these men who employ Lucy through the manner in which they treat Lucy. The abuse we witness forces us to reconsider her position as an erotic object: the men who visit her treat her as an erotic object in such an overt manner, her eroticism is made so explicit to us that it becomes negated and undermined.
Leigh’s film is effective on a number of levels, through a diverse range of methods, and it is only through a strictly feminist reading that Leigh’s intentions can be truly understood. Sleeping Beauty is an especially distinctive film, subscribing to Leigh’s idea of ‘wonder cinema’, the film seeks to inspire its audience: Leigh states ‘My hope is that the film allows the audience to use its imagination’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). For Leigh, ‘The “observing camera” was there from the moment of conception. The tender steady witness. The chamber point-of-view. It worked for this story which explores a sense of being watched. The audience is involved and almost complicit’ (Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online). It is through this that the film reflects elements of Lucy’s subjectivity, imbuing the film itself with a sense of quiet, restrained resistance. There is never any doubt that Lucy is in control: she understands what she is agreeing to, although she is not aware of what takes place, an issue which she actively seeks to resolve through the use of the camera at the end of the film. The final scene of the film shows the footage recorded by Lucy’s secreted camera, and as she is the only one aware of its existence it is clear that it is her viewing the footage. Through viewing the footage, Lucy can once again place herself in control through gaining the knowledge she desires. Leigh’s film is clearly complex, dealing with issues of feminism and male sexuality; arguably Leigh suggests that much of Lucy’s power stems from the attraction her physical presence provides. These men remain powerless, never able to truly possess her, then Lucy’s unknown quality and her inability to be possessed by others is surely the film’s central conceit. Ultimately the very look of the film as a whole, its neutral, subdued tones, its dispassionate quality, along with the frequent use of one-shot takes and predominantly frontal composition both enhances and imbues the feminism of Leigh’s work, inviting the viewer to not only question what they have witnessed, but to ensure that they defer from viewing Lucy as simply an erotic object. Through Leigh’s chosen style, the film complicates issues of spectatorship and voyeurism; Leigh’s film, despite its content, it surely decidedly unerotic, an uneroticism informed through the men themselves.
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Cavell, S. (1996), Contesting Tears: The Hollywood Melodrama of the Unknown Woman, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press
Evans, P. W. (2006), ‘Commentary’ upon Belle De Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
Kawin, B. (1978), Mindscreen: Bergman, Godard, and First-Person Film, New Jersey: Princeton University Press
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
Perez, G. (1998), The Material Ghost: Films and Their Medium, Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press
Screen Australia and Magic Films Press Kit, 2011: Online http://www.festival-cannes.fr/assets/Image/Direct/040260.pdf [accessed 01 May 2012]
Wilson, G. 1992, Narration in Light: Studies in Cinematic Point of View, 2nd Printing, London: The John Hopkins University Press
Belle De Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
Sleeping Beauty (Leigh, 2011)