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Vanessa McMahon

Vanessa is a novel writer, screenwriter, rep and a film producer. She shares her discoveries and film surprises. :-)



SLEEPING BEAUTY and the female gaze.



One of the films in competition at the 64th Cannes Film Festival was SLEEPING BEAUTY (2011) by writer/director Julia Leigh. While one might recall the sweet animated Disney film SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959) or the classic fairytale in reference to this title, this film is a far cry from these classics with the same name; rather, this ‘sleeping beauty’ is about the erotic desires of a young woman and her ‘female gaze’, as opposed to the much discussed, much debated cinematic theory of the ‘male gaze’. But I wonder…Is there really only one gaze or can there be both genders in each gaze? Could the female gaze be male and the male a female gaze? Is everything so cut and dry?


Writer/Director Julia Leigh and actress Emily Browning spoke about the film in a press conference at Cannes:

JULIA: As a writer you are always working with the flow of time. Writing novels I learned to be aware of flow of time. I wanted the reader to want to turn the page. I believe that like the book, with this film we don't know what to expect about which comes next. I hoped to hold the tension from beginning to end and I felt that sustaining the long narrative was sustainable to making a feature.

QUESTION: But films are shot per shot. They flow ultimately but the editing pulls it together so how can you say that the film can be novelistic and work?

JULIA: We cover the scenes in one long take. From the outset I had no intention of getting traditional coverage on the script. My DP was challenged by this idea and everyone was interested in participating in that. While we did a lot of editing, we didn't have to create the scenes in the editing room. We didn't have to shape so much in edit. We did employ a few tricks, which I will never reveal.

QUESTION: To Emily, How did you feel about performing such a daring role?

EMILY: Well, it was a challenge. While I'm not brave in my life I feel that I can be so in my work. When I act I can pretend to be brave. I don't have a problem with naked human bodies so it wasn't a problem for me to act nude.

QUESTION: Can you speak about the concept of paradoxes in the film between the innocence and also desire?

JULIA: The character Lucy is quiet and ruthlessly reckless and yet at the same time submissive. Her perverse provocation to the world is like her saying, ‘my cheek is turned. Try to provoke me’. In this way, she’s disrupting women of normal upright social conventions.

EMILY: I myself look innocent but the character Lucy is very aware. I don't see her as victim in any way. She lets forces around her control her and she is a nihilist letting things happen, willingly putting herself in danger.

QUESTION: What did you want to explore with this film?

JULIA: It’s dangerous for a filmmaker to encapsulate in four sentences what they were trying to explore. There is a fine line between explaining meaning and losing the meaning. And it does disservice to audience. King Solomon slept next to young virgins. Gandhi even tested himself sleeping with young girls. There are elements of that exploration in the air. After my first novel was published I was exposed in a way and I had a nightmare that I was being filmed in my sleep. I was dreaming of being asleep in my bed. So I was interested in this, that something is happening to you when you sleep but you don't know what it is. Inspiration is always a tough thing to describe.

QUESTION: What can you say about the male gaze in cinema? Do you think it puts the audience in a strange position? How do you expect audience to react? Disturbed? Like the film is a narcotic?

JULIA: The film deals with the subjects of the male and female gaze and voyeurism. What is difference between being a voyeur and just a tender witness? Is the audience in more of a powerful position as tender witness than voyeur? I hope people have a visceral reaction to the watching the film similar to swallowing a balloon. I like films that don't go in one ear and out the other. I like films that stay with me. So with this film I hope it has a strong impact on audience one way or another. I hope the tone or atmosphere of the film helps audiences build the film. To watch with a sense of wonder what is going to happen next in the story is what I want.

QUESTION: There is an interesting use of sound in the film. Can you tell us what that is about?

JULIA: With the sound we worked with breath, subtly with breath in a chamber. The sound drops and comes back, etc. With the sound designer we tried to marry the sound well. It is very restrained which I think goes well with the theme of the film.

QUESTION: To Emily, can you tell us about how you prepared for this role?

EMILY: I watched Lars Von Trier’s ANTICHRIST (2009), and was very inspired by it because that bravery in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s role was amazing. We worked a lot on my physicality. I had to fake sleep a lot so through sleeping I learning to meditate through dreams and not be present.

JULIA: Friendships in my early twenties were very intense. We don't put enough stress on that, I think because we diminish those relationships in time. I have major respect for people that age and despite doing professionally what they are trying to do, retain intense friendships. It’s not unusual that the character Lucy has a friend in the world like she does. They are two people refusing to be well adjusted in their own way. Why do we have to adjust ourselves? So these friends are resisting that. Lucy takes care of her friend. There is a line in the film: 'I just want to share and love with my friends'.

QUESTION: Are your views feminist? Have you read books with the POV from older men like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other magical realist writers? Have you read them and did they inspire you?

JULIA: Yes, I have read both writers and was inspired by them. But of course my stories are the stories I have to tell and are different. During the editing my friend the great director Jane Campion was in the audience giving me comfort in the editing room during the edit. That was important to me. It was a late idea of the producers to get her involved, however, and was not planned from outset.


The press conference ended and Jane Campion stood up behind me. She had been sitting during the press conference and had gone unnoticed till then. Ah, how nice it was to meet the director of so many masterpieces including an all time favorite of mine: THE PIANO (1993)!

Thus far there are mixed reactions to SLEEPING BEAUTY. But, what a title! And I cant think of a better subject than a paradoxical female character who is strong, ‘quiet and ruthlessly reckless and yet at the same time submissive’. Sounds like a film I have to see! ☺

SUMMARY: “A haunting portrait of Lucy, a young university student drawn into a mysterious hidden world of unspoken desires.”

Written by Vanessa McMahon May 14, 2011

see official site here:

Sleeping Beauty press conference photos... by Vanessa McMahon 


Emily Browning at Cannes 

 director Jan Campion attends conference.

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