Sexuality and Speed:
Sleeping Beauty, Senna

FILM, Film Festivals

At the New Zealand International Film Festival: Julia Leigh’s erroneously marketed “erotic thriller”; plus, Ayrton Senna’s fast times.

By all accounts, Julia Leigh’s provocative Sleeping Beauty is polarising audiences at the New Zealand International Film Festival, fresh from a similar reaction in Cannes; there, its central arguments provoking either deep contempt or worthy consideration. It’s a shame that the film’s flaws have overshadowed what is an intriguing and intelligent piece of filmmaking, and that some of the baggage attached to it—“erotic thriller!”, “Jane Campion endorsed!”, “icy!”—has led to it being mis-sold. And if anyone does find it erotic, then they’re completely missing the point.

Sleeping Beauty revolves around Lucy, a bored university student who answers an unconventional if high-paying advertisement. The job, initially serving men in her underwear, results in a promotion to the role of “Sleeping Beauty”, in which she is drugged, and men are allowed to do whatever they will to her naked body (penetration excluded). Though clearly benefiting from the easy marketability of nudity and sex, Leigh’s film is far more complex and thoughtful than its vaguely pornographic plot suggests. Many have made allusions to Eyes Wide Shut, but it’s Spanish great Luis Buñuel who is the closest thematic heir. While lacking Buñuel’s savage satire, the film, like Belle de Jour or Tristana, examines the interrelationship between body, guilt, mortality, and power. (Other obvious links can be made to Catherine Breillat, or Pauline Réage’s The Story of O.)

Whether she’s deciding to sleep with someone at the flip of a coin, is having a tube inserted down her throat (as a medical subject), or is dressed as an S&M maid, Lucy’s “body” is for sale—a commodity even if sex isn’t involved (which it rarely is). Throughout the film, her body is naked and vulnerable, but importantly, is never owned. This attacks the misconception that control of a body is an invitation to penetration. In an audition uncomfortably close to slave trade, Lucy’s body is dissected by her “bosses” for “feminine perfection” in terms of what will best suit their male clients. But that initial submission aside, Lucy retains considerable power. Her rebellion lies in the power that is denied to the men—they never get her mind, while the sexual control cannot be taken from Lucy, as she is simply passive. It’s a nihilistic treatment of the body, one that allows Lucy to deny the men the power they crave. (Leigh amplifies this through her presentation of their all-too-human bodies.) It’s only when Lucy becomes curious, when she equates guilt to her body (whether it be with her old friend “Birdmann”, played by Ewan Leslie, or one her clients), that she loses control.

On the other hand, an equally valid reading of the film is to consider Lucy completely powerless: that she never really escapes the commodification and submission of her initial audition. Her listlessness and lack of control is heightened by the fact that she is entirely dependent on her employer, Clara (Rachael Blake), and that she relies on the men buying her body in order to gain any power. Her body might give her power, but it’s only her body—nothing else. (What happens, for instance, when it is no longer considered desirable, or is considered flawed?) And, it is only when she tries to regain control of herself that she realises the awful truth of what has happened to her in one of her “sessions”. Indeed, the ambiguous ending might explain the awkward dichotomy in the film’s critical and audience interpretations; a dichotomy of power versus powerlessness that figures extensively in feminist writing on sex and the body (such as the debate on pornography in the 1970s).

Leigh’s film is visually understated; its long takes and carefully composed shots prompting some to call it detached. But in the same way as a Breillat film works, the rigour of Leigh’s camerawork heightens the dislocation in Lucy’s life, as well as the lack of a meaningful intellectual or personal connection. (The characters are only ever confronted with Lucy’s body.) As Lucy, Emily Browning is absolutely fearless, and her total commitment to the role grounds the character. She plays her with total restraint—so much so, that she often jars with the supporting cast. Browning’s naturalistic approach doesn’t always gel with the awkward dialogue and poorly drawn periphery characters—most notably Birdmann, Clara, and the fairy godmother character—leading to some unintentionally funny moments. This is far from fatal to the film though. Browning’s central performance is fascinating, as are the ideas orbiting around her character and the impressive, complementary visuals, marking Leigh as a filmmaker to watch.

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This is not intended to sound pejorative, but top-class racing drivers must be missing something in their brain. Where most ordinary people would consider high-speed motorsport a risky undertaking, there doesn’t appear to be an off-switch to these drivers at all, and it’s hard not to come away with that impression after viewing Senna. Asif Kapadia’s superb documentary really gets you puts you in the driver’s seat, and gives such a compelling view of its champion protagonist, that its appeal ought to extend well beyond motor-racing fans.

The film charts Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna’s development from a teenage karting prodigy to Formula One champion. While for motorsport fans (and many others), the ending is never in doubt, the documentary builds to its tragic climax with inexorable force. Senna’s final race is recounted with chilling simplicity, and having given us such a sharp, realistic depiction of the man up until that point, it was almost too hard to watch.

The footage itself is exhilarating, whether it’s the car-cam journey through the Circuit de Monaco, or the backstage drivers’ briefings in which the tension frequently spills over. The film also includes home video footage, focuses on key moments in Senna’s career, and eschews talking head interviews, opting instead to overlay commentators’ thoughts over potent images. It’s a successful tactic that allows for more visual excitement, but also importantly, doesn’t interrupt the narrative flow. Senna’s voice features heavily, as if he were posthumously shaping his own legacy.

Senna convincingly captures an idealistic driver who was all about the race—quite the opposite of the Machiavellian champions who usually dominate the sport. His devout Catholicism, criticism of other drivers, and frequent brushes with authority isn’t overlooked either, nor is his rivalry with French champion Alain Prost, one of sport’s great feuds. All in all, a complete picture of a supremely driven and talented individual.

‘Sleeping Beauty’, Dir. Julia Leigh
Australia, 2011; 101 minutes
Featuring: Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie, Peter Carroll, Chris Haywood, Hugh Keays-Byrne.
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin.
‘Senna’, Dir. Asif Kapadia
UK/USA/France, 2010; 104 minutes
In English, Portuguese, French and Italian, with English subtitles
Screening: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit