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Julia Leigh, the shape-shifting sorceress behind Sleeping Beauty

Julia Leigh in Toronto during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival

Fernando Morales/Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Who is Julia Leigh? The arrival of the first-time Australian director's film, Sleeping Beauty, at Cannes this spring, roused instant curiosity about the unknown upstart in a competition led by such names as Almodovar, Malick and von Trier. Was her cool, perverse film about a college student, Lucy (Emily Browning) who allows herself to be anesthetized so old men can maul her body while she sleeps, included as a juicy provocation? Critics were divided though film-buyers in 45 regions, from Buenos Aires to Russia, snapped it up.

In fact, Leigh, was far from an artistic neophyte. A 41-year-old writer of two slim novels, almost a decade apart, she has been praised by the likes of Don DeLillo, J.M. Coetzee and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who has described Leigh as a "sorceress" whose "deft prose casts a spell of serene control, while the earth quakes underfoot."

The daughter of a Sydney doctor and math teacher, Leigh took a post-university administrative job at the Australian Society of Authors where she was encouraged to write by the novelist Frank Moorhouse. Her first book, The Hunter (1999), about a man who sets out to kill the last Tasmanian tiger or thylacine, won or was short-listed for a raft of international prizes. (A film version, starring Willem Dafoe and Sam Neill, will be released next year.)

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After finishing her PhD in English, Leigh published her second book, the novella Disquiet, in 2008, about a family reunited in a château in France, trying to ignore the delusional young woman carrying around the decomposing corpse of her still-born child. The New York Times called it "an exquisitely chiselled exercise in creepy minimalism."

In person, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the sorceress appears as a pleasant, soft-spoken, pale woman with a long sweep of dark hair and a businesslike black suit. Her conversation is superficially tentative – pausing, weighing her words, back-tracking – but strewn with small verbal firecrackers: "I like to loosen the edges of myself when I watch a film," or "We stitch together our days and edit out our nights."

She mentions her inspirations for Sleeping Beauty – Yasunari Kawabata's The House of the Sleeping Beauties (1961) and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores (2004) – two novels, decades apart, that involved old men sleeping with drugged girls. There was also a personal connection. After The Hunter was published, she had a recurrent nightmare that she was being filmed in her sleep.

Did she feel the dream was related to her sudden sense of public exposure? At that mildly personal question, Leigh gives a long, dubious, "Hmm...," then begins trying to remember a quote from Roland Barthes about the illusion of authorship, before she gives up: "The point is the me that you see before you is not the me in my private little space, shape-shifting into the writing role, nor is it the me that works with the actors. Here, at the end of the film doing interviews, I feel like I'm in disguise."

So which self made Sleeping Beauty? Not the prose writer, she says. She envisioned the film, in its entirety, as an experience constructed to be watched, with the camera serving as a "tender witness" to the young woman's experiences. The aim was to create a feeling of "heightened watching, heightened listening."

"I've seen the film twice now with an audience," she says. "I don't watch the screen. I watch their physical reactions. I hope they're thinking, 'I wonder what's going to happen next' and 'I've never seen anything like that' and 'How far will it go?"

In Cannes, the phrase that Leigh used to describe her strategy was "wonder cinema." She says she meant it in two ways: both keeping the audience guessing, and presenting "what's wondrous, or strangely beautiful – without being too cheery about it."

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Not exactly The Wonderful World of Disney, then, although one of Disney's great achievements was also a film about a comatose beauty passed out among a group of little old men. She agrees the fairy-tale elements are there and ticks them off: A velvet cloak, a dropped trail of berries, a so-called "wicked" woman who puts young girls to sleep, the glass coffin of Lucy's high-rise condo.

As otherworldly as she can seem, Leigh knows not everyone will embrace her particular "death-haunted" version of Sleeping Beauty, but she's sure many, especially young women, will find a mirror of themselves in its heroine's "radical passivity." For a moment, she offers a glimpse of the person behind the shape-shifting enigma.

"There are some of us who will recognize periods in our own lives, of disenchantment and self-destruction, when even the commitment to staying alive was not to be taken for granted. But I suppose some people are shiny and happy the whole time and won't see themselves at all."

Writers who have also directed films

Canadian David Bezmozgis, whose recent novel, The Free World, was short-listed for the Giller and Governor-General's Awards, is also a filmmaker, whose first feature, Victoria Day, was in competition at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

Norman Mailer, the literary brawler, made three underground features in the late 1960s, including the cultish, improvised Maidstone, in which Rip Torn tried to hit Mailer with a hammer and the author bit off part of the actor's ear. His mainstream effort was the 1987 film noir, Tough Guys Don't Dance, starring Ryan O'Neal.

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Stephen King is responsible for dozens of movies, but only directed one, 1986's Maximum Overdrive, about a radioactive comet that causes machines to come alive. As one reviewer put it, the movie explains why other people direct Stephen King movies.

Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet, French writers associated with the postwar "new novel" which eschewed traditional plot and characterization, were also significant avant-garde filmmakers. Both wrote screenplays for director Alain Resnais (Duras's Hiroshima mon amour and Robbe-Grillet's Last Year at Marienbad) before making their transitions to directing.

James Clavell, the author of such historical door-stoppers as Tai-Pan and Shogun, wrote numerous screenplays and directed for both television and film, most notably the Sidney Poitier hit, To Sir With Love.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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