by Sarah Cope

What can you expect from a film that, when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year, was met with both booing and clapping? Though perhaps that mixed reaction is to be expected, because this film deals with the issue of sex work, which is an issue sure to polarise opinion like no other.

Lucy (Emily Browning) is depicted taking on all kinds of work in order to pay for her degree, to the extent that it is difficult to see when she would find the time to actually study. Although this is an Australian film, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the plight of students in the UK these days, who must find themselves in a similar situation due to spiralling tuition fees.

The first work we see Lucy doing is when she takes part in medical research in return for cash. This involves swallowing a tube down her throat, which looks painful and disgusting, causing her to gag non-stop. This of course raises the question: is this work not more exploitative and dangerous than the sex work we later see her engage in? Other work she is depicted carrying out include mind-numbing waitressing and an office job doing endless photocopying, where the female boss enjoys treating her badly.

Already engaging in seemingly ad-hoc sex work, she answers an advert which leads to a job doing next to naked waitressing at private parties, which earns her two hundred and fifty an hour. This in turn leads to more sex work (‘promotion’) but of a very unusual kind. She consents to be drugged, and then, unconscious, letting elderly men have access to her body on the stipulation that there is to be no penetration.

It is unclear what this odd depiction is meant to signify. Does it imply that sex workers, whilst giving their bodies, give little of their selves, to the extent that they are – metaphorically at least – unconscious? Why the ‘no penetration’ rule? One of the elderly men states he couldn’t have penetrative sex even if he wanted to, and then men are indeed shown to be somewhat pathetic and lonely, desperate for company and getting little from an unconscious woman.

Despite the fact that Lucy doesn’t know what’s going on when she is unconscious, and that the men are limited in what they can do to her, we see that she is still in peril. The first man we see her with accidentally almost allows her to suffocate. The second, a deeply unpleasant man with anger issues, shouts abuse at the unconscious Lucy before burning her with a cigarette. The third man repeatedly lifts her naked body and then – intentionally? – drops her repeatedly on the floor.

What struck me was how isolated Lucy is throughout the film. The nature of the work she is engaging in demands that she is separated from her fellow students, but her emotional detachment is never explained nor elaborated upon. Another strange note was the way in which she asked men, almost at random, whether they would marry her.

The film ends extremely abruptly, with nothing resolved, having answered none of the complex questions it has raised.

Sleeping Beauty is out now on general release. (And here’s the Guardian’s view.)