Once upon a time
Julia Leigh has emerged as one of the country’s most intriguing talents, writes Michael Bodey
EVEN within an Australian film industry given to overhyping young writer-directors, Julia Leigh’s rise is astounding. The acclaimed novelist of The Hunter and Disquiet attracted considerable federal funding for her debut feature, Sleeping Beauty, without so much as a short film to her name.
Petty jealousies within the film sector led to whisperings about a screenplay that was divisive and scandalous, even troubled. Some even suggested the film would become a costly embarrassment for the federal agency, Screen Australia. Then the film’s projected star, Mia Wasikowska, abandoned the project because of ‘‘ scheduling issues’’.
Leigh doesn’t appear to be the type to care about other people’s expectations.
‘‘ No, it doesn’t bother me,’’ she says with a laugh, the week another magazine feature quoted one description of her as ‘‘ a carefully constructed enigma’’.
Well, she and her film confounded expectations. Sleeping Beauty was selected as one of 20 films in the main competition of the world’s highest profile film festival, Cannes, competing for the prized Palme d’Or against works by experienced luminaries such as Terrence Malick, Pedro Almodovar and Lars von Trier.
In the film a university student, Lucy (Emily Browning), takes a job in which she allows herself to be drugged in a lush, woodpanelled mansion in the country. As she sleeps, seemingly moneyed old men enter the room to do with her what they wish, with one proviso from their host, Rachael Blake’s Clara: ‘‘ No penetration.’’
The narrative alone is enough to divide audiences and a synopsis doesn’t do justice to the extremities of some scenes, including repulsive interaction with Chris Haywood’s Man 2. Leigh imbues the film with a cool, mannered formalism that recalls most keenly the works of Michael Haneke. As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw observed at Cannes: ‘‘ It is perpetually a surprise to realise the dialogue is in English and not French or Austrian-accented German.’’
That may have coloured some Australian coverage of the film’s reception. One Australian journalist wrote that the film’s first screening received a ‘‘ smattering of claps and an answering burst of boos’’ in a piece headlined ‘‘ Australia’s Sleeping Beauty given a rude awakening at Cannes’’.
Leigh simply describes her Cannes as ‘‘ a truly strange and wonderful experience’’ for which no one can prepare.
The festival’s size and focus draws kaleidoscope of critical attention. It a is difficult to recall a Cannes entrant of recent memory that was universally adored (this year, silent film The Artist appeared to be best loved yet won only an acting prize).
‘‘ Hmm, I understand we had disparate responses,’’ Leigh says carefully. ‘‘ I have to be careful and not pay too much attention to either the good or the bad. But some people I really respect are strong champions of the film so that makes me really happy.’’
The domestic coverage of her Cannes response, not the response itself, gnaws at Leigh a little. She emails afterwards to clarify her answer. Neither she nor the film’s distributors, Transmission Films’ Richard Payten and Andrew Mackie, heard boos from the audience and were surprised by the negative reports in local media.
‘‘ We [Browning, Blake and producer Jessica Brentnall] had a long standing ovation. Not one single boo,’’ Leigh says. ‘‘ It was filmed, it’s indisputable. It was a truly wonderful experience, something I’ll never forget.’’
The truth is competition films have at least two audiences at Cannes. It is traditional for international media to view a film scheduled for a gala evening premiere at 8am the same day, so they can file reviews and not besmirch the main event with their poor dress standards and bad manners. If not hung over, many of the press are certainly jaded; the morning audience is hard to impress and is the one that invariably provides a boo or yawn.
Whatever. Sleeping Beauty has since sold to 45 territories, including the Middle East and Russia. It will now have a global life most Australian films would envy, so it’s not surprising Leigh feels good. She also has the rare distinction of having a feature-film adaptation of her first novel, The Hunter, likely to be released in the same year as her debut. The Hunter was shot last year in