Emily Browning as Lucy in Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty" directed...

Emily Browning as Lucy in Julia Leigh's "Sleeping Beauty" directed by Julia Leigh, A Sundance Selects Release. Credit: Sundance Selects/

A fascinating, erotically charged mystery, "Sleeping Beauty" vibrates with sexual symbolism in every frame but contains very little sex -- at least, not the usual kind. The directorial debut of Australian novelist Julia Leigh, it's a singular, stylish film that's sure to polarize viewers by intentionally promising more than it delivers.

It opens with Lucy (Emily Browning, "Sucker Punch") stifling her gag reflex as she swallows a plastic tube into her stomach. It appears to be clinical guinea-pig work, one of many odd jobs, along with waitressing and file-clerking, that Lucy takes to pay for college. Lucy is also a prostitute, or perhaps just allows herself to be treated like one by pushy men in pricey bars.

Constantly short of cash, Lucy answers a want ad that leads her to a splendid mansion in the woods where a queenly matriarch, Clara (Rachael Blake), offers the oddest job yet: Lucy will be drugged into unconsciousness, stripped naked and placed in an enormous bed for elderly men to do with what they will. Clara's customers obey one rule: no penetration.

What follows is a fantastical mix of formal-dress sex parties, furious perversity and sly nods to the tropes of fairy tales and dreams. Browning, as Lucy, spends much of the movie completely nude and limp as a noodle -- no small feat given what her male co-stars do to her -- but she also manages to convey something princesslike and pure, even when snorting cocaine in a nightclub.

"Sleeping Beauty" has its pretensions (one character recites the entire plot of an Ingeborg Bachmann short story) and never quite fleshes out an alcoholic character named Birdman (Ewen Leslie), who is Lucy's only emotional attachment. The film's sudden, puzzling ending will likely frustrate some, but others will find it all a tantalizing enigma -- impenetrable, as it were.

PLOT A college girl moonlights as a prostitute

-- while unconscious. Unrated (explicit sexual content)

CAST Emily Browning, Rachael Blake, Ewen Leslie


PLAYING AT Sag Harbor Cinema

BOTTOM LINE A stylish, erotically charged and highly perverse mystery that's bound to polarize viewers.

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