From Australian writer-director Julia Leigh comes a spellbinding film that takes hold quickly and uses repetition to tighten its vise. Emily Browning is Lucy, a petite Australian university girl who owes her income to incidental jobs, including medical research (she can swallow without gagging), office work, waitressing, and hooking, or so it seems. Answering an ad for a high-end escort business known as “Silver Service,” she’s transformed into near-naked sommelier and later accepts spending nights in a mansion where she’s offered up to voyeuristic clients as a fantasy companion. Prim madam Clara (Rachel Blake) assures her that he job does not require intercourse: “Your vagina is a temple,” to which the placid Lucy replies: “My vagina is not a temple.”
In fact, nothing about Lucy is remotely temple-like, or even substantive. She makes no demands because she has no terms. Instead, she’s an amoral vessel who is less erotic than waif-like, with a laconic, unformed character that is mostly determined by the caricatured debauchers who flit around her. She’s a literal “sleeping beauty” in that Lucy agrees to be drugged and blacked out before her mansion “trysts” to ensure that Clara’s aging, well-to-do clients are protected from blackmail.
Disinterested Lucy’s closest brush with humanity is providing companionship to a Young Werther-like man who lies at home watching Oprah, porn, and the Nature Channel while awaiting for the appropriate time to commit suicide. Once Leigh has established Lucy’s rhythms, she repeats them hypnotically, on guard against emotionalism and epiphany. That hypnotic method (shades of Lynch, Kubrick, and early Atom Egoyan) gives the story a stylized eroticism that makes Lucy seem to dwell among the sexual living dead.
But hedging so many bets also makes for a narrative that is indirect and Kabuki-like (Leigh got the idea from Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata’s “The House of the Sleeping Beauties.”) In essence, Lucy plays sexual guinea pig to whatever comes her way. She is experimented on in the manner of her medical test job. Loneliness and self-destructive instincts no doubt play a major role in just who Lucy really is, but, cast in amber, she is never once called upon to look at herself in the mirror. If the goal is to ask questions about sexuality, estranged Lucy is little more than a thoughtfully engineered but perplexing tease.