Australian erotic thriller shocks Cannes audiences

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A film billed as an erotic thriller by first-time Australian director Julia Leigh, "Sleeping Beauty" had audiences squirming at its premiere in competition in Cannes on Thursday.

It stars 22-year-old Emily Browning, best known for playing the lead role in Zack Snyder's "Sucker Punch", as a student who takes a job fulfilling elderly men's sex fantasies while asleep.

Requiring absolute submission, the job sees her drugged with a tonic that places her in a deep slumber, after which she is placed naked on a bed by her madam in the so-called Sleeping Beauty Chamber of a country mansion.

A series of wizened clients come and go, told they can do anything they want with Lucy short of penetration or "leaving any marks".

Cannes critics, generally a hardened bunch, fidgeted in disgust as one septuagenarian sadist stripped down, climbed on top of her, grunted insults at her and burned her ear with a cigarette, all while she was lying unconscious.

An oddly passive young woman even in her waking hours, Lucy also participates in excruciating medical trials for money which entail feeding a tube down her esophagus.

A few audience members marched out during such scenes, but the hard-hitting experimental film drew a solid round of applause at the end.

New Zealand-born director Jane Campion, who was the first woman to win the coveted Palme d'Or, for "The Piano" in 1993, served as a consultant on the film which is among 20 vying for the top prize to be awarded May 22.

Leigh, a respected novelist who is one of a record four women in the running this year, said she had taken inspiration from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella with a similar story line, and from ads for "sleeping girls" on the Internet.

She said the voyeuristic aspects of the film gave the audience a responsibility to wrestle with its dark themes about the elusive appeal of youth and the fear of death.

"I hope it has a strong impact on the audience one way or another. I also hope the tone or the atmosphere allows the audience to use their imagination and get involved with the film," she said.

"I want the audience to really be watching with a sense of wonder at what is going to happen next."

Browning, who appears nude in much of the film, said she felt safe with Leigh at the helm.

"I didn't become as disturbed during those scenes in the sleeping chamber as you might imagine because I kind of taught myself to meditate through those scenes," she said.

"In my everyday life, I'm a little bit nervous and not particularly brave so I feel like if I can be completely brave in my work than I'm doing something right."

© 2011 AFP

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