There’s a saying which roughly states that the beginning of a story represents endless possibilities, while the rest of the narrative represents the closing off of those possibilities. It’s a sentiment that is immediately recalled while watching Michael Venus’ Sleep, a film that begins with a seemingly endless saturation of intriguing questions and then spends most of its running time answering them in the most generic ways possible. Marlene (the great Sandra Huller) is a flight attendant who suffers from violent nightmares, bombarded by cryptic images that, upon waking, she sketches in overflowing notebooks. She’s convinced that these are images of a real place, and that the mysterious faces she sees are actual people. Her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof) is skeptical, more concerned about getting her mother to a doctor than indulging her fantasies. Under the guise of a work trip, Marlene sneaks off to a small town and quickly has a psychotic breakdown, leaving her in a catatonic state. The hospital contacts Mona as her next of kin, and when she arrives she begins recognizing certain buildings from her mother’s furiously scribbled drawings. So begins the mystery, as our intrepid heroine investigates the town and, much to her consternation, finds herself having vivid nightmares and increasingly erratic hallucinations. Venus gets to have it both ways here, filming Mona’s waking hours with a casual realism, all natural light and clean, symmetrical frames, while using the dream sequences to indulge weird, often creepy expressionistic flourishes. It’s uncanny in the literal sense of the word, and appealingly inexplicable, a litany of jump scares and contorted faces bursting forth from the shadows.
Once Mona meets hotel owner Otto (August Schmolzer) and his brittle wife Lore (Marion Kracht), the plot thickens: Otto is a little too accommodating, a gregarious town elder who is happy to show Mona around and regale her with tales of the town’s tragic past and glorious future. To reveal more of the specific plot machinations would be a disservice to the viewer, but it’s unfortunate that Venus so rapidly diffuses the considerable sense of dread that permeates the early parts of the film, instead opting for a pat (albeit supernatural) explanation for everything. Most frustratingly, Venus is very careful to always delineate between dreams and waking life, a miscalculation which robs the film of any sense of danger. In other words, Sleep could stand to be a little more Lost Highway and a little less Inception, with all its audience hand-holding. Sleep begins as a psychological thriller, only lightly suggesting horror through the developed sense of menace, before going all in on ghosts, witchcraft, and its recycled ‘sins of the past’ garble. What it amounts to is a collective reckoning of the historical trauma of Germany, a noble enough agenda but one elsewhere explored more successfully in countless other films. Still, Sleep manages to succeed to a certain degree as a low-key exercise in creep fest tone-building, even if the final destination ultimately leaves plenty to be desired.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2020 — Dispatch 1.