Mouthing Off: Psychoanalyzing SLEEPING BEAUTY, a Queer Film
8 January 2012
From the narrative perspective, Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty is about a university student, Lucy (Emily Browning), a loner who experiments occasionally with drugs and other self-destructive behavior, but is a hard worker in what seems like an endless list of jobs. While some of her jobs are typical, such as copy girl and waitress in a café, some are less conventional, such as test subject in a science lab. In addition, twice in the film Lucy solicits sexual activity from men in high-end bars (although the audience never sees the activity or Lucy receiving payment from the men). Moreover, one of Lucy’s most curious jobs is as nursemaid to a character named Birdmann. Birdmann is a drug addict whose physical condition deteriorates throughout the film. Ultimately, Lucy’s job, as it pertains to Birdmann, is to bring him food, alcohol, company (but never sex), and be at his side when he dies. Yet, regardless of working all these jobs and attending university, Lucy answers an ad in the paper for yet another job, one more bizarre than all the others.
According to Clara (Rachael Blake), the woman Lucy interviews with, the new job is silver-service in lingerie, meaning a formal, structured service position at high-end dinner parties. Clara makes it clear to Lucy, who she renames Sarah, that despite the sexual eroticism involved in these parties “[Lucy’s/Sarah’s] vagina will not be penetrated; [her] vagina is a temple.” Lucy does not see it that way, evident by her response, “My vagina is not a temple.” Inevitably, Lucy’s work as a silver-service lingerie girl is rewarded and she gets promoted, by Clara, to a new position, a Sleeping Beauty. As a Sleeping Beauty, Lucy must drink an elixir of drugged tea which puts her into a deep sleep. While asleep she is not allowed to know what happens to her, but Clara makes the same promise to her regarding vaginal penetration. Although Lucy remains in the dark, the audience sees that while she is asleep the elderly men from the silver-service party have their way with her unconscious body, but Clara’s promise is never broken; the men do not have sex with Lucy.
Ultimately, Lucy finds it unbearable not knowing what is happening to her while she is asleep, so before her next job Lucy hides a small surveillance camera in her mouth, and just as she is falling into her deep, drug-induced sleep she pulls the camera out and places it in the bedroom. Because of Lucy’s drug use mixes negatively with the strength of the drugged tea, she nearly dies during this final job and Clara must give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to wake her. When Lucy final comes to, she sees one of the elderly men from the party naked and dead in the bed with her. Overwhelmed, Lucy begins to let out a series of loud yells. The film’s final scene is the surveillance video Lucy shot. Because the man died, the only thing on the misleading video is Lucy and the elderly man lying still on the bed.
While watching Sleeping Beauty it seems strikingly clear its writer/director, Julia Leigh, was well versed in Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic work. A bold take on an oppressive fairytale, Leigh’s film, presented by New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion, does not hold back, but does require a Freudian lens with which to read it.
In his career, Sigmund Freud developed a theory of psychosexual development; the first stage is the oral stage. In short, according to Freud, during the oral stage a human receives his/her first sexual stimulation and pleasure through the mouth, which is one of the major erogenous zones of the body. Ultimately, a person will pass through five stages of psychosexual development, ending at the genital stage. In this her first film, Julia Leigh uses the mouth, the first of Freud’s stages, continuously in Sleeping Beauty as a mirror for the vagina. The mouth is a motif in Sleeping Beauty, and, although there are no explicit sex scenes in the film, scenes in which the mouth plays a vital role represent the direct sexuality absent from the film. While Clara’s promise of no vaginal penetration holds true, Lucy has several sexual encounters in the film, including penetration, beginning with the opening scene.
Sleeping Beauty opens in a science lab where Lucy enters as a test subject for experimentation and research. As test subject, a male lab technician puts a long white tube inside Lucy’s mouth and down her throat. Read psychoanalytically, this act serves as a sexual encounter. Moreover, Lucy goes back to the lab later in the film and has the same encounter. Significantly, in both these encounters at the lab the technician is in control of the encounter.
Later in the film, when Lucy arrives for her first silver-service party, the woman in charge asks Lucy to go upstairs and match the color of her lipstick to the color of her labia. Leigh’s inclusion of this detail directly connects the mouth with the vagina in the film; thus, strengthening the psychoanalytic reading of the film. Lucy does not take the woman’s direction seriously, and when the woman notices the lipstick color Lucy selects is not a match she takes matters into her own hands. After looking to see the appropriate color, the woman applies the lipstick on Lucy herself. Unlike the scene in the lab, Lucy is not penetrated by the woman; instead, it is a homoerotic encounter. Yet, the woman, like the lab technician, forces herself on Lucy; the encounter is a violation.
During one of her jobs as a Sleeping Beauty, an elderly man, who is demeaning and revolting, climbs on top of the unconscious Lucy and, after slewing vulgarities, sticks his fingers into her mouth. This is penetration. Furthermore, this man sticks his tongue out and licks Lucy’s face. Reading the film on the psychoanalytic slant, this is not just a sexual act, but also a rape. Again, Lucy has absolute no power in the acts being forced upon her.
It is important to note the mouth is also a conveyor of voice, and Leigh pays special attention to voice in Sleeping Beauty. In addition to serving as a mirror for the vagina, the mouth also offers hushed, muffled, and monotone voices. It is often difficult to make out what characters are saying. As a viewer this gets frustrating; however the hushed voices become retrospectively clear when the film reaches its powerful climax.
When Lucy awakes, after receiving the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation from Clara, and sees the dead man lying next to her she lets out a series of piercing yells. Finally, Lucy puts a stop to being penetrated, her yells prevent it. With her voice, which is now loud and clear, Lucy’s mouth is closed off to violation; she has now found her voice, and, in doing so, can prevent further penetration and abuse.
Lastly, in taking the psychoanalytic reading of the film this far, it stands to reason Sleeping Beauty is a piece of queer cinema, and is ultimately about female homoeroticism. Clearly the heterosexual relationships/encounters in the film are negative, abusive, and non-functional. Conversely, the female relationships/encounters are primarily trusting and caring. True, the initial encounter between Lucy and the woman, regarding the lipstick shade, was aggressive, yet the relationship between Lucy and Clara is the film’s unconventional love story. It is Clara’s mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that (literally and figuratively) brings Lucy to life in the film’s conclusion. This powerful moment was foreshadowed the second time Lucy is in the lab with the male technician. Clara rings Lucy’s phone and Lucy all but yanks the long, white tube from her throat and mouth to answer Clara’s call. Lucy desires Clara and she responds positively to her, which is in stark contrast to every other relationship she has in the film.
Freud could never fully account for homosexuality, particularly female homosexuality, which is where Leigh takes aim in Sleeping Beauty. The film cannot be fully appreciated without a psychoanalytic lens, yet it points to an area of psychoanalysis that falters. Clearly Leigh, a novelist turned director, knew what she was doing. Sleeping Beauty’s foundation is in psychoanalysis, yet builds off it, evolving into a remarkable contribution to queer cinema.