Once upon a time

Ju­lia Leigh has emerged as one of the coun­try’s most in­trigu­ing tal­ents, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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

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