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Students in sex work


Sleeping Beauty (MA). Director: Julia Leigh. Starring: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Ewen Leslie. 101 minutes

In May a German study revealed that one in three students in Berlin would consider sex work as a means of paying for their education. We've seen similar phenomena in Australia where, in 2005, Dr Sarah Lantz, a researcher with a background in public health and mental health, noted that many struggling students were 'utilising the sex industry to support themselves, their children and their own post-secondary studies'. She blamed the rise of economic rationalism principles in tertiary institutions for putting the squeeze on students.

This provides interesting real-world context for the beguiling but perplexing new Australian film Sleeping Beauty. Protagonist Lucy (Browning) is a university student who finds herself drawn into working a bizarre niche within the sex industry. The film's title hints at the frighteningly submissive nature of the work she endures.

However Lucy's motivation for pursuing this well paid but decidedly demeaning work is not as clear-cut as 'she needs the money'. References are made to student loans, and we see her verbally tussle with housemates over rent. But Lucy, as coolly portrayed by Browning, is marked by an enigmatic aloofness, rather than desperation.

Prior to entering the sex industry, she has multiple sources of income, working, for example, as a waitress, and as a guinea pig for medical experiments. These each in their own way foreshadow her later sordid work choices: the menial and personable dimensions of waitressing reflect the 'hospitality' dimension of prostitution; the medical experiments, which involve sliding a sterile tube down her gullet while she battles her gag reflex, have an overtly sexual connotation (the administrator of the experiment even thanks her shyly for her services).

Taken alongside a fatalistic personal approach to sexuality, Lucy's frank pursuit of such roles evoke a sense that she is drawn, rather than simply accustomed, to being used, particularly if there is money to be made. The roots of this emotional masochism are not explored. But the progression to sex work seems predestined.

In fact her progression to the role of 'sleeping beauty' seems to be motivated by a desire for extravagance rather than a need to make ends meet. She is advised by matronly manager Clara (Blake) to work hard for a short time and use the money she earns wisely. Contrary to such pragmatism, Lucy literally puts a flame to one bill from her first pay packet. She also moves to a glamourous inner city apartment without even seeing it first.

In this, Sleeping Beauty seems primarily to be a study of the vacuity of individualistic consumerist western culture, rather than a lament for the plight of poor students.

Secondarily, almost parenthetically, the film offers a bizarre yet poignant consideration of geriatric male sexuality. Lucy's sleeping beauty 'performances' are graphically portrayed, but notable for their emotional content as much as their soft-pornographic elements. (Writer-director Leigh has said she means to place her audiences in the role of 'tender witnesses' rather than sinister 'voyeurs'.)

For these sessions, Lucy is rendered unconscious by a heavy narcotic, so that she is utterly submissive to the clients' whims, and retains no memories of the encounters. The clients — wealthy, elderly men — may do to her sleeping form as they please (though penetration and physical damage are forbidden). The sequences are unpleasant, but the men's humanity is exposed along with their age-worn flesh and warped sexual desires.

The first (Carroll) caresses her gently, seeming to yearn for tenderness and youth rather than sex per se. The second (Haywood) confesses aloud his impotence before proceeding to verbally and physically abuse Lucy, his self-loathing finding form as profanity levelled at this exquisite, passive beauty. The third (Keays-Byrne) lifts Lucy and attempts simply to hold her; the effort proves too great for his aged limbs. In each case it is possible to feel sympathy for the man, as well as revulsion at the perverseness of his behaviour.

For Lucy, ignorance is not bliss. Eventually, she decides she must know what happens to her while she is sleeping. But the film's tragic climax lacks some of the emotional punch it might otherwise have contained, if Lucy were a less inscrutable character.

In fact, first-time filmmaker Leigh's failure to form Lucy's various aspects into a cogent whole is the main weakness of an otherwise bold and accomplished film. A subplot involving her eccentric friendship with a reclusive alcoholic (Leslie) does more to obscure than illuminate her character. That said Browning's courageous and mature performance is bewitching. We are fascinated by Lucy even if we don't understand her. 

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. He is a contributor to Kidzone, Inside Film and The Big Issue, and his articles and reviews have appeared in Melbourne's The Age and Brisbane's Courier-Mail. Follow Tim on Twitter 

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Emily Browning, Sleeping Beauty, sex, Rachael Blake, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood



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Existing comments

Just another dirty movie produced for a sex-obsessed public.

Trent | 16 June 2011  

Education is expensive - and will be more expensive. At least you have to pay with something. Male students have muscle power. Female students have a different type of power. Thanks to the governments. Now kids have the means to earn money in their early age.

AZURE | 17 June 2011  

Why does no-one mention the book that this is based n."The House of the sleeping beauties" by Yasunari Kawabata, Your review sounds very judgmental.

Sordid, perverted, warped. Not more perverted than working in sales and lying to make money.Less sordid than washing dishes for $10.00 per hour. I have yet to see this film but the original book and the unrelated Australian film "Man of Flowers" show the sadness and beauty of sexuality of the aged. It sounds like this version is more focuses on the experiences of the young woman.

Stepping outside the confines of sex within serial monogamy brings with it a new way of looking at everything. I just hope it doesn't end with her being killed. The sexual woman being punished is an old and deeply conservative and offensive viewpoint.

Brenten | 20 June 2011  

Check the overseas press and check the responses from real people before you go. This is a typical one - replying to David Stratton's review.. First time I've ever asked for my money back. I can only imagine David was trying to be kind to the Australian Film Industry in his review. Utter pointless nonsense.

Ordinary viewer | 27 June 2011  

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