Set in contemporary Australia, writer-director Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty (2011) depicts some months in the complex life of its protagonist Lucy (Emily Browning). Scenes slide back and forth from the realism of the everyday to the sexual-fantasy realm of an exclusive brothel. The visual erotic displays, however, are nearly devoid of explicit sexual interplay. Lucy's realist and fantasy worlds materialise without the standard Hollywood trifecta of plot, goals and resolution, and this often maroons the viewer. The labyrinth of pathways to access meanings positions Sleeping Beauty in the enigmatic realm of art cinema1 and certain scenarios – in particular the two bedroom suicides and the dark twist of the final scene – connect to form a discourse that steers us into the arena of film noir.2 Given Leigh's cinematic inventiveness, an intriguing question is: "How do we understand Lucy?"

Lucy is a self-funded university student whose beauty and outward serenity recalls Botticelli's Portrait of a Young Woman. Unable to pay her rent, she also carries the financial burden of her demanding, alcoholic (off-screen) mother. Lucy cobbles together an income from various jobs. Along with her home life and her relationship with a convalescent by the name of "Birdman" (Ewen Leslie), these constitute her life compartments. She is a "lab-rat" for a student doctor (presumably researching the digestive process by invading her oesophageal tract with a lengthy tube); a waitress at a diner (where her co-worker fancies her); and a Girl Friday relegated to the tedium of a photocopier room. Later, answering an ad in the student rag, she scores a job working for Clara (Rachel Blake). She earns an hourly $250 as lingerie-clad waitress at silver-service parties for Viagra-inspired sexa and octogenarians, which eventually segues to highly lucrative non-penetrative sex work.

Clara's sex-work proposition is based on "mutual trust and discretion." She declares that Lucy's "vagina will be a temple" and urges Lucy to treat the job as a short-term measure to pay university fees, not as a career. Lucy agrees to be drugged to serve as the plaything of elderly and often sadistic clients who she is strictly not permitted to see. But, we as viewers are witness to the scenario: Lucy's adolescent-like naked body, slumbering upon a vast bed. She is vulnerable to molestation and sometimes obscene and abusive handling, which she is powerless to prevent.

Ironically, at the cusp of Lucy's new-found wealth, she is threatened with eviction by her male housemate, whose aggressive remarks evidence his sense of her worthlessness. The night she returns home from her first lingerie-waitress engagement, she finds an offensive note on the coffee table. By deduction, we know this relates to the unpaid rent. She squashes it and tosses it away. This episode – softly backlit by a sculpture of fairy lights on the wall behind her – is visually magical. We see a pensive Lucy, seated on the sofa, light a cigarette. On the table, she fans out her spoils of hundred-dollar bills, and then stacks the notes in two piles. She picks up a bill, and sets it aflame. The camera zooms into her face as she watches the note shrivel and turn to ash. In her eyes, we have the window to Lucy's soul.

The mystery of the money-burning scene is instrumental in expressing the individuality of Lucy's character. It is one the critical visual episodes that connect to form the discourse of the film, which ultimately is the story of an unconventional life. To construct Lucy's identity, Leigh relies on the viewer's cognitive ability to piece together clues. As Lucy drifts from scenario to scenario,we are led to question ideas of innocence, fatalism and romanticism.


Despite a surfeit of visual gratification and dialogue, two aspects of Sleeping Beauty restrict access to understanding Lucy. One is the disconnectedness of the different compartments of her life. The other is the lack of overt character definition, which creates a texture of ambiguity that makes it difficult to satisfy audience curiosity about Lucy. What is her backstory? What does she want? What is her psychological disposition? How is she vulnerable? These questions are the pillars of classical narrative cinema but Leigh's creation resists adopting conventional styles.

Lucy's bewilderment, compassion and fears are mostly expressed in non-verbal ways. For example, while Clara is preparing the sleeping-drug tea, Lucy's eyes are pools of trepidation; yet, she makes no appeal for assurance of her safety. Lack of verbal articulation and her mask of emotional passivity make it difficult to garner audience empathy. The apparent passivity is, however, countered in glimpses of Lucy's inner life. As carer-friend to Birdman, her humanity is portrayed in their friendship. This is revealed in their conversations and non-sexual physical closeness, and in her despair as she shares his bed in his dying moments.

Bordering the brothel scenario are cameos of Lucy in licentious moments – moving in the shadows of unprincipled and reckless social behaviours. In our gaze, we may condemn Lucy. Or we may consider her behaviour from the perspective of a worldview that empathises with the diversity of the human condition. Should mainstream reasoning be mediated by our imagination and critical thinking? Does Lucy bear the right to individualism and her solitary life, and to be free from the yoke of morality judgements?

Leigh's portrait of Lucy is challenging to interpret. The film operates on a series of interlinking inferences and cinematic devices to grow the story's emotional heart.3 Meanings are derived by weaving dual platforms: one, a system of semiotic and linguistic signs; and, two, pairings of events – thus creating a bridge across visual and cognitive landscapes. Events draw upon each other to construct Lucy's inner self. An example of this is the two suicides: first, that of Birdman; then a goateed codger at the brothel.

In the final scenario, Lucy has smuggled a surveillance camera into the brothel bedroom. While Lucy slumbers, Clara provides a lethal dose of sleeping tea to the goateed codger. When Lucy awakens, Clara allows her to see and touch the coldness of the cadaver lying beside her. Lucy's terrified screams and wretched howls do not move Clara. Clearly, she has calculated the high worth of Lucy, and has designed Lucy's incarceration by implicating her in the assisted suicide. But, the very last scene of Sleeping Beauty is a backward flash to Lucy's sleeping form aside the dead man – a reminder of the hidden camera and Lucy's recording of Clara's chilling acts, suggesting that for Lucy, there will be money to burn.