Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sleeping Beauty: More Like Magic Mike Than You Might Think

As someone who writes on gender and the body, I practically *had* to see Julia Leigh's Sleeping Beauty, being, as it is, about a woman who agrees to be heavily sedated in a room alone with paying customers. What I expected was an extended version of the bizarro masked ball/orgy in Eyes Wide Shut. What I got was a pretty clear-eyed examination of how bodies, beautiful or no, get consensually commodified.

The film follows Lucy (Emily Browning, who you might remember from Sucker Punch, aka, the movie I kinda liked that the rest of universe hated), a university student putting herself through school with the help of several odd jobs and without the help of her alcoholic and thieving mother. Early on, she demonstrates a detached relationship to her own sexuality. One scene has her deciding which stranger to sleep with in a bar and when based on a coin toss. Therefore, when she answers an ad in the student paper (!) for a job in the sex industry that involves a full-body inspection and a threat about the consequences of indiscretion, she's not too thrown.

Lucy begins her new job by wearing lingerie at dinner parties and serving wine and brandy to tuxedoed old men, and is eventually "promoted" to the role referenced by the title--she drinks a tea spiked with the mother of all sleeping pills and lies naked in a room where clients are ushered in, admonished not "to penetrate or leave marks," and left alone with her for unspecified amounts of time. If this sounds at all erotic, I'm not explaining it right. We see what a selection of the men do (it ranges from the poignantly mundane to the pathetically, and ominously, dominant), but Lucy remembers nothing, and earns enough for a sweet penthouse apartment.

And here's where the comparisons to Magic Mike come in--Lucy, baffingly, despite making major bank, does not quit her other jobs as a waitress, copy girl, or university research subject. (The latter requires her to be, ahem, orally penetrated by some sort of esophageal balloon.) The reason, I think, is a not-quite subtle indication to the audience to realize the work is basically the same. All of it requires Lucy to disassociate herself from her body because the jobs are so soul-crushingly repetitive (and/or physically unpleasant) and to disassociate herself from her mind because she doesn't need a brain to do any of it. Herbert Marcuse, with his theory of surplus repression, would have a field day with this movie. The late great Frankfurt school philosopher argued that the modern world had to repress the body over and above what was necessary for social development because if it didn't, we would all go freaking crazy over how unsatisfying and unappealing our jobs are. To translate this argument into the sphere of erotic freelance work, which is supposed to be about pleasure, is actually pretty interesting.

Also, much like Channing Tatum, it matters that Emily Browning has a beautiful body, and the camera does not refrain from lingering over it, naked and clothed, for a good 30% of the movie (ballpark). Which, of course, implicates the audience in her objectification, and possibly her exploitation. Though Claire, the icy madam, promises her clients they are "safe" in the room with Lucy because "no one can see," of course we can. But Lucy can't. Her inability to connect with the experience in any way begins to drive her mad, indicating that the less literal iterations of alienating work will have a similar outcome. Sleeping Beauty is a pretty clever and cutting economic critique in an erotic fantasy's lingerie.

1 comment:

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