Australian filmmaker Julia Leigh’s erotic drama Sleeping Beauty, and Jeff Nichol’s Mid-Western epic Take Shelter on the surface bare few similarities, save for praise and attention at film festivals such as Cannes and Sundance in 2011. The former stars the excellent Emily Browning as struggling university student Lucy in Sydney, flitting between temping jobs and waitressing to support herself and pay her rent. So far, so familiar. In an unusual step, she responds to a sinister ad recruiting lingerie clad silver service for private events. From this, Lucy takes on a job at the ominously wealthy company as a ‘sleeping beauty’: induced to a comatose state, and ‘rented’ to men to do all but penetrative sexual acts for a night. The settings of the film, from Lucy’s darkly lit apartment to the ornate country house in which she is sedated play on the financial aspirations which drive her to this morally ambivalent choice.
Where Lucy’s perhaps misguided pursuit of security pushes her towards destructive situations, the protagonist of Take Shelter, Curtis, beautifully played by Boardwalk Empire regular and Oscar nominee Michael Shannon has destruction forced upon him. A construction worker by trade, he begins to suffer from nightmares and delusions of an unknown threat to him and his family, and ultimately visions of an impending apocalypse. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) encourages him to seek help, concerned by increasingly bizarre behaviour that alienates him from friends and acquaintances, and causes him to lose his job unexpectedly, and therefore lose the insurance they desperately need to fund their deaf daughter’s treatments. Unlike Sleeping Beauty, which uses interiors to reflect Lucy’s inner states and concerns, Take Shelter’s central tensions play out on the tumultuous canvass of a churning, stormy sky. Against the stark Ohio plains, the sky presents every danger to Curtis: electrical storms and thunder, freakishly large hailstones, and birds dropping dead without reason from the sky; and the most frightening aspect is that these calamities are unseen by all but him.
Both films present compelling narratives of how far people are willing to go for the pursuit of stability. The scenes in which Curtis is working on his underground bunker to keep the ‘apocalypse’ away from his family are hauntingly resonant: and his wife’s horrified response to her husband gives the audience a stark realisation of what this family is really coming up against. The sexual dystopia presented in Sleeping Beauty examines prostitution and the ethics of doing whatever to make money to a more subtle, yet equally horrific effect. Neither of the films are an easy watch, but their implicit indictments on the world in recession are fascinating and rewarding to anyone feeling the strain. One piece of advice: don’t have a back-to-back viewing of them if you’re job hunting.
Take Shelter is out on DVD on 19th March 2012 and is rated 15, and Sleeping Beauty is on DVD now, rated 18.