Photo: TIFF
by Daniel Gorman Film

The Sleepwalkers | Paula Hernandez

September 16, 2019

Paula Hernandez‘s The Sleepwalkers begins with the sounds of a ticking clock and running water over a black screen. The noises increase in intensity until they sound like a roaring ocean, waves lapping up against the shore. Luisa (Erica Rivas) awakes and finds her daughter, Ana (Ornella d’Elia), wandering the house, naked. There’s blood on her thigh, and Luisa quickly realizes that Ana has begun menstruating. Using a young woman’s coming of age (i.e. her first period) to signify great change is a hoary cliche; thankfully, Hernandez doesn’t lean too hard on the symbolism, instead allowing this brief prologue to act as a kind of loose contextualization for the family drama to come. With husband Emilio (Luis Ziembrowski), Luisa is reluctantly travelling to the family’s vacation home, where she will spend a long weekend with a bevy of brothers, sisters, cousins, grandmothers, and small children. It’s a flurry of activity, and Hernandez charts everything with a simple virtuosity, keying in on gestures and facial expressions to reveal how people are really feeling while nodding politely at each other.

The spectres of Lucrecia Martel’s films The Holy Girl and La Cienega hang over The Sleepwalkers, although Hernandez is a bit kinder to her characters than Martel’s acerbic, caustic view of the oafish petit bourgeoisie. Water plays an important role in all three of these films, as a kind of free floating metaphor, a symbol of purity and fertility but also a mysterious, unknowable void. There is a very specific vibe at play here, a kind of hot box environment, as the home becomes a pressure cooker of unresolved familial antagonism and buried resentments. This is all mostly benign, at least at first, as adults argue over money and jobs and the children wander aimlessly, amusing themselves by the pool. Meanwhile, Ana starts getting very close to her older cousin, Alejo (Rafael Federman), who’s both a bundle of raging hormones and cautious, tentative flirtation. By the time Hernandez introduces a horrific act of violence towards the end of the film, there’s a certain sense that she had to include something, anything, to hang a semblance of narrative on. It’s almost a shame, as just luxuriating in the sweaty, humid atmosphere of general unease is perfectly interesting in and of itself. Still, the eventual collision of all this animosity and sexual tension leads to one of the great final scenes of recent memory, as Luisa and Ana get in their car and flee, determined to get away from this dysfunctional nuclear family. They are both desperate and damaged and scared but also, if only for a moment, finally free.

Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 5.