The Proust Questionnaire from Dmetri Kakmi and…da da…Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty

My pal Dmetri Kakmi, he of the fine memoir Motherland blogs here at Corporate Cannibal..

He regularly asks his writer friends to take part in the Proust Questionnaire and now he’s asked me. If I sound like Pollyanna that is because I am Pollyanna.

Which brings me to Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty. Pollyanna it aint. I don’t know what it is, actually, only what it is not. It is not brave or erotic or haunting or a dark fairytale. I was hoping for Belle du Jour or some suggestion of that peculiarly European vision of sexuality as something hidden, compelling, beautiful.

While there are moments of beauty in the film (visual beauty I mean, in that some scenes are beautifully composed, like paintings). Its palette is dark, sombre, the opposite of sunshine, recasting the light of Sydney into the light of Europe.

While one can admire Leigh’s desire to bring a new eye to Australia, to disturb and twist and rearrange the minds which can only see it as a place of beaches and sun and outback, her attempt to graft a European sensibility onto an Australian sensibility is woefully misjudged.

It’s a long time since I’ve seen such a laughably bad movie. I stayed in my seat because I couldn’t believe it was so bad, and in my Pollyanna way I was really sure it was going to redeem itself. When it ended I was spitting chips and demanded my money back (Palace Cinemas assures its members we can do that — but the trick is that you need to leave within the first half hour of the movie).

Why did this tale of the emperor’s new clothes arouse such strong feelings in me? Partly because this movie represents everything risible about certain strands in contemporary culture, and what is rewarded. Am I supposed to be shocked that men hate women? Of the sight of old flesh pressed up against new? If I had to say what I think this film is about, I’d say it is about death. Yet it remains curiously removed from its subject, a series of beautiful ideas or images or visions that have failed entirely to form the necessary transfiguring act to turn them into art.

This morning as I walked in the sunshine I thought about what I need from art, whether it is a film or a book or a painting. To me the whole business of art is about revealing life, showing as it were the inside lip of existence. I don’t require dun-coloured realism, I am very happy with the beautiful metaphor. I want the big reach, the long eye, that shaken up feeling.

Co-incidentally this week I interviewed for Qweekend the extraordinary artist William Robinson. Robinson is 75, and he lost two of his children early, and he brings to his paintings his whole life. He brings something authentic, some quality of suffering, and of a willingness to look into the eye of suffering to see what he might bring out the other side.

That’s what I want: authentic, found things, beauty, pain, the whole catastrophe. Julia Leigh’s film was championed by Jane Campion, who it seems to me always brings those things to her films. In just one shot alone, say the opening scence of her hugely under-rated film In The Cut Campion manages to eclipse anything Leigh has achieved in her whole film.

Who is the main character in Leigh’s film? If we don’t know who she is, we can’t possibly know what the film is either. I found it boring, pretentious, laughably silly, but I really couldn’t tell you what it was about.

I was still spitting chips when a fan of the film said she found it really interesting. I may be wrong, but I think she felt a little sorry for me, for not being sophisticated or intelligent enough or well-versed enough in European cinema to appreciate it.

So there you go: that fan may be right, and I may be wrong. Whatever. I guess that’s the thing about culture, eh (as we say in Queensland). Taste: there’s just no accounting for it.

PS Don’t think I haven’t noticed how hypocritical I am — ahem — given my sweeping pronoucements below about not making pronouncements on other peoples’ work. Just add hypocritical to Pollyanna……my excuse is that I haven’t felt so disappointed or hood-winked by a film in a long, long time….but that really doesn’t cut it does it? Ah, life, and its paradoxes and ambiguities…

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6 Responses to The Proust Questionnaire from Dmetri Kakmi and…da da…Julia Leigh’s Sleeping Beauty

  1. Emma Mahony says:

    I want to see the movie now if it really is that bad. I haven’t seen a film about Oz worth seeing for ages – as carbon offset for hating this one, give me a good arty film about Oz to order at Love Film instead? What do you love?


    • Susan says:

      I was about to reel off a list, and then I realised you meant Oz films….

      Oh. Now I can’t really think off the top of my head which recent Oz films I’ve really loved. The last one I saw that I was impressed by, which IS in fact dark and unsettling and kind of repulsive (but wonderfully acted and wonderfully crafted by another first-time director) is ANIMAL KINGDOM.

      Don’t know if it is available through Love Film — might be — I found them pretty good. Apart from that, can’t think of anything I’ve seen recently that’s really impressed me, or that I’ve loved. I loved, loved, loved THE BEACHES OF AGNES –about the French filmaker Agnes Varga — I know Love Film have that one. If you want art and beauty and real human emotion, Agnes is your gal.

      Speak soon x

      • Susan says:

        Go and see SLEEPING BEAUTY though, and see if you think it as bad as I do….you may have another opinion.

        • Susan says:

          And the risk of turning this into a rant, here’s another shout for the rant….

          I googled some other reviews to see what the general response is, and I founda piece reporting on an AFI event with Julia Leigh and Jane Campion, and some other interviews besides. Somewhere Leigh says she can’t think of another writer who has made the leap to directing…well, Marguerite Duras and Neil Jordan immediately spring to mind, and I’m sure there are lots of others if I could bear to waste any more time on this….

          Oh, and Emma, while you are asking about other films, I remembered that the last film I found spectacularly moving and beautiful was Julain Schnabel’s THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY. There’s another director who has come from another discipline (painting in Schanbel’s case) — and also his first movie — but it just knocks SLEEPING BEAUTY for dead, in terms of conveying mystery and beauty and despair and passion. It is art writ large, but true art, not faux art.

          Here endeth the rant….Emporer’s new clothes I say….

          • Stanley says:

            Emma, seriously don’t waste the 90 minutes of your life + the time it takes to get to and from the cinema. Wait until it appears on cable TV and have a good laugh with a good glass of wine (you’ll need it to get through it) in the comfort of your lounge room.

            Good Australian films? Samson and Delilah, though maybe you’ve seen it already. I’m looking forward to Fred Schepsi’s interpretation of Patrick White’s Eye of the Storm.

  2. Susan says:

    Thanks Stanley — haven’t seen Samson and Delilah — you’ll have to check Emma if it has UK distribution yet. And agree about the White film — can’t wait. I reckon the brillian Jane Campion would be a wonderful match for White too….