Rachael Blake as Clara, Emily Browning as Lucy, and Peter Carroll as Man… (Wendy McDougall / Sundance…)
In the opening scene of "Sleeping Beauty," the main character, a Sydney college student played by Emily Browning with pointed blankness, is being intubated, through the mouth, by a researcher in a medical lab. It's one of Lucy's several ways of earning cash, and the clinical atmosphere sets the tone for a film that can be maddeningly opaque, and at times reads like a risible riff on arty soft porn.
Yet as repellent as Lucy's story can be, its mystery has a seductive sway, and it does add up to more than the sum of its insistently elliptical parts.
Moving through her days at an icy remove — and viewed almost always in studied medium shots — Lucy buses tables, endures a deadly glum office and turns tricks at a tony bar. Her newest and most lucrative job involves sex work, of sorts, for an exclusive service that might have been subcontracted as orgy support staff in "Eyes Wide Shut." For Lucy's moneyed, geriatric clientele, the goal isn't erotic pleasure but permission for uncensored acting out.
"You'll be safe here," the impossibly elegant madam Clara (Rachael Blake) assures them as she leaves them with Lucy, unconscious and unclothed beneath the brocade covers. A tea has put her to sleep so that elderly men can do with her as they will. But unlike Lucy's medical volunteer job, at Clara's she won't be penetrated: The clients must refrain from intercourse. In disturbing scenes they reveal themselves to be needy children, variously angry, foolish and sad.
Julia Leigh's debut film bears more than a touch of Catherine Breillat-style sexual provocation but none of the heat. Emotion surfaces rarely, chiefly in Lucy's platonic love for a friend quietly bent on self-destruction. An assured balancing act of menace and tender ache, it's an arrangement of mirror shards as portrait. As a young woman struggling to put the pieces together, Browning is both ethereal object and everyday girl.
"Sleeping Beauty." No MPAA rating. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes. At the Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood.