“The real problem [or] the central mystery of politics is not sovereignty, but government; it is not God, but the angel; it is not the king, but ministry; it is not the law, but the police — that is to say, the governmental machine that they form and support.” Those are the words of the controversial Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, but they also describe the cinema of French filmmaker Ladj Ly and his interrogation of French social malaise. For Ly, the government can do no good; the poor, those at the mercy of the “governmental machine,” survive through class solidarity. And “survive” is the correct word to describe the cinema of Ly, and in particular his rendering of the plight of the poor: this is evident in both his 2019 Cannes competition film Les Misérables and in the new Les Indésirables, which siphons pent-up social anxieties to create an emotionally effective, even if ultimately politically reactive, social drama.
The progressive mayor of a Parisian suburb dies in the demolition of a decrepit building that he planned to replace with affordable housing. His replacement, the snotty and emotionally stunted Pierre (Alexis Manenti), inherits a righteously indignant population of largely North African immigrants angered by a gentrification plan that thinly disguises itself as a rehousing project. His aporophobia and Islamophobia only make the relationship more fraught (all the new Syrian refugees accepted into the city come from Christian backgrounds). As Pierre and his city government sniff out radicalizing potential, they pass “anti-gang” laws banning 15-to-18-year olds from gathering in groups in the town’s center and strictly enact a curfew of 8:00 PM for all minors — reminiscent of the tensity and imagery of the social restrictions globally experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic.
One young woman from Montvillers, Haby (Anta Diaw), who works an entry-level archival job in the mayor’s office and houses refugees in her spare time, decides to disrupt the status quo. Her boyfriend, the conveniently named Blaz (Aristote Luyindula), approaches the forced rehousing issue more in the tradition of Frantz Fanon or The Battle of Algiers than his liberal partner. “It’s cute. But pointless,” he lips to Haby, who admires the picket-and-sign protestors. The governmental machine needs to be broken… and that means someone needs to break it.
On a cold December walk, the couple pauses to gaze at a billboard advertisement for the pending housing project. Families deemed too large (as constructed by white French-Christian family norms) for the two-bedroom units that will be provided to them face an uncertainty. True to his namesake and always prepared with gasoline, Blaz burns the advertisement. In separate one-shots, their ideologies cement. Blaz looks at the fire with awe and empty eyes, as if he just received murderous inspiration from the Divine; Haby sees, like her boyfriend, a determined call to action. Unlike him, she doesn’t see such hatred in the flames. Once the separate ideologies are made plain, editor Flora Volpelière returns to an uncomfortable two-shot: the two separate meanings created at the fire collide with one another. Their romantic happiness now carries a sense of doom, as if the fire carried with it a pronouncement.
Speaking of fires, an accident at an illegal restaurant in Haby’s apartment complex starts a fire that causes structural damage to the building. The new mayor orders an eviction for the residential building on Christmas Eve, an eviction he orders knowing full well that the African deputy mayor (Steve Tientcheu) will take the blame. No subtleties here: the inhabitants of the Parisian projects become les indésirables, the “least of these,” on a holiday (celebrated by the film’s many Muslims) infused on the surface with a welcoming spirit. The eviction uses what appears to be hundreds of extras and is shot by cinematographer Julien Poupard with the same visual cues of looting media sensations: overwhelming visual and auditory clutter, the breakage of mundane items, a palpable and frenetic camera, and the throwing of large objects. The police evictors do little more than take up room on the stairways as they give the people no warning and no time to decide what to bring with them. In one brief but stylish sequence, the camera rests at a landing between stairs and follows an individual carrying his birdcage down before pivoting to another person complaining about the scenario as they climb the same staircase. There’s no more audacious setup in the entire film than this eviction sequence — nor is there a more successful one.
Later on Christmas Eve, Blaz expresses his incredible frustration by displacing his political energy onto a personal vendetta against the authorities he perceives as responsible. He breaks into the home of the “traitorous” deputy mayor, and as the earlier foreshadowing promised, prepares to set it ablaze. The editing of the final two acts of violence — one chronologically and thematically following from the other — forces a mental comparison between the two: simple, old-fashioned both-sidesism. But the two acts aren’t morally equivalent: one is a community of hundreds or even thousands of destitute immigrants that will financially play catch-up with the effects of their evictions for the better part of a decade; the other is a single rich family, physically unscathed (basically) and financially unharmed. One is an act of violence carried out by the muscle of the state, the other is a perturbed young man who misplaces his incredible frustration. The editing brazenly levels the two acts of violence onto one moral playing field.
The most frustrating element in Les Indésirables, though, comes from Ly’s incorporation of government-enforced curfews. As stated earlier, the experience of the young people in Montvillers resembles 2020-21 pandemic isolation. The youth express their dissatisfaction with the new discriminatory laws in a language that not-so-vaguely recalls the conservative reactionaries to social restrictions in the face of Covid. “We haven’t seen such measures since the Algerian War!” one disaffected woman yells, echoing the equally hyperbolic anti-lockdown protestors who compared Western governments to Nazis. Combined with the very real racial and economic issues that accompanied the global experience of the pandemic, the emotional dependency on real-life experiences of social restrictions comes off as manipulative. During the pandemic, those who opposed the restrictions were almost always doing so in bad faith and without the support of societies most vulnerable; in the film, those who oppose it are righteous victims.
Perhaps this makes Agamben a fitting philosophical ideological analogue to the cinema of Ly. The Italian philosopher thought “the health emergency was being exaggerated” to expand the reach of the state; he eventually denied that there even was a pandemic and became skeptical of vaccines. Even though the in-world scenario of Les Indésirables presents a truly oppressive and regressive local government, headed by a weasley man eager to exercise power, it’s manipulatively dependent on real-world memories and emotions about a very different set of government imposed social restrictions. It’s not that dissimilar to The Creator’s visual effect recycling of the 2020 Beirut explosion that killed 218 people: both twist real tragedy and pain for dishonest artistic benefit.. — JOSHUA POLANSKI
The Feeling That the Time For Doing Something Has Passed
Many critics have already labeled Joanna Armow’s laboriously titled The Feeling That the Time For Doing Something Has Passed a “millennial” comedy (a fitting alternate title: Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time), a descriptor that makes a certain amount of sense but that also feels limiting. It’s true that writer-director-star Arnow has constructed a cringe-inducing treatise on contemporary dating, but the feelings of inadequacy and interpersonal malaise that she so deftly chronicles ultimately know no generational divide. If you’ve ever been in an unhappy relationship or felt awkward during a sexual encounter, chances are Arnow will strike a nerve. It’s a universal ennui.
Structured as a series of discrete vignettes organized around title cards displaying the names of her romantic partners, Feeling begins with Ann (Arnow) in bed with Allen (Scott Cohen). It becomes clear that the pair have been together for quite some time, and that they engage in BDSM play, he as the master and she as the sub. But Ann is increasingly dissatisfied with their arrangement. She begins to assert herself by asking him to show some interest in her beyond sex, a change in the arrangement that irks Allen. And so Ann branches out, determined to meet someone new. Intercut between various, fairly explicit sex scenes are a series of conversations between Ann and her elderly parents (played by Arnow’s actual mom and dad) and scenes of Ann at her deadly dull office day job.
Arnow is in virtually every scene of her film, and her dry, deadpan delivery goes a long way toward normalizing the potentially problematic BDSM sequences. The master-sub relationship is rendered as physical comedy, not psychological gamesmanship; Armow seems interested in presenting things matter-of-factly rather than titillating audiences. She elicits some big laughs by underplaying the absurdity of her various arrangements, using repetition and stasis to enhance punchlines: Allen commanding Ann to leap out of bed, run to a wall, then rush back to suck on his nipple gets funnier and funnier the more it repeats; likewise a different suitor who endlessly repeats “fuck-pig.” Arnow has a knack for casual absurdity; one scene has her emptying a pouch of soup into a bowl in real time, an action that is meaningless to the narrative but nonetheless becomes a kind of recognizable symbol for loneliness and isolation. Ann eventually meets Chris (Babak Tafti), an encouraging development that allows Arnow to chart the tentative first steps of a burgeoning relationship. But a cryptic final scene suggests that the relationship won’t last, or at least that Ann needs something Chris can’t provide.
This would all be fairly familiar territory if not for Arnow’s keen sense of rhythm (the office scenes in particular tread very worked-over material). Scenes are short, clipped, almost a rat-tat-tat staccato, cutting abruptly at the end of a word or movement. Arnow favors static compositions that evoke portraiture, more of a lineage with the work of Ted Fendt or Ricky D’Ambrose than Lena Dunham (to whom she is most often compared). InRO contributor Lawrence Garcia has observed that Feeling denies us “the usual markers of personal change… thereby restricting our capacity to make sense of the protagonist’s behavior.” It’s a fascinating piece of work, hilarious and depressing in equal measure, often evoking autofiction as if daring audiences to psychoanalyze its creator. We’re all stuck in our own stasis, and love and work and family are all just different facets of the same power struggle. — DANIEL GORMAN
The Pigeon Tunnel
The main question asked in Errol Morris’ newest film — a presentation of late author John le Carré’s final interview — is not posed by the documentarian and interviewer, but spoken by the subject: “Who are you?” A former British spy whose experience with interrogation goes beyond decades of interviews given as a novelist, le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, clearly wants inside his interviewer’s head to get a better sense of his specific goals with this project; he’s seen Morris’ films, he says, and finds that the director is sometimes a “god,” sometimes a “spectral figure,” and other times something else entirely. The Morris of this film does not adopt a god-like guise — which is to say, he does not construct his own narrative out of his subject’s words — but neither is he content to merely fill the role of the interviewer. Morris largely gives The Pigeon Tunnel over to le Carre, allowing his legions of fans 90 more minutes with the deceased master, but the documentarian does structure his film into neatly and thematically divided thirds. Morris also pairs le Carre’s words with both his typical reenactments as well as clips from adaptations of le Carre novels (mostly the BBC stuff, but there’s room for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, too).
The Pigeon Tunnel begins with le Carre’s beginnings — or rather, Cornwell’s — and with it an explanation of this film’s title — which is taken from the author’s autobiography. “The Pigeon Tunnel” was, at one point or another, a working title for each of le Carre’s novels: the phrase references a memory of the pigeon hunting trips Cornwell’s father would often take, and which would end when the birds would travel down a long funnel and emerge on the other end to be shot out of the sky. If the relation of that story to the content of le Carre’s novels needs explaining, Morris cues a clip from the ending of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — of Leamas and Nan (Liz in the novel) running for the Berlin wall under threat of gunfire. Le Carre’s spies are set-up, duped, constantly put in danger by powers that move in shadows above their pay grade and who, during the Cold War especially, gladly employed former Nazis to fight shallow ideological conflicts while burning their own men. Morris links this tendency not only to Cornwell’s time in the secret service, but to a series of betrayals in his childhood, as the son of a conman and an absent mother who could not go on living with his deceptive father.
Moving on from this exploration of Cornwell’s childhood, The Pigeon Tunnel takes on his years in spycraft, and then his work as a novelist. The spectre of Kim Philby’s betrayal of Britain, and the betrayals committed by Cornwell in the line of his own duty, form a throughline here. But this section is also perhaps the least novel in the film; the insights into le Carre’s work that Morris offers will all be familiar to anyone who’s read even the foreword to his republished editions. Le Carre’s work is disillusioned and angry with the espionage business, a refreshing counterpoint to the heroic illusions of James Bond. But the author has always cautioned against praise that he’s received when it’s framed around the idea that his more bleak tone makes the work more “realistic.” If he has a regret about his publishing work, it’s that he sometimes constructed a fantasy in which the secret services are confident puppet masters instead of the reality of an espionage apparatus in shambles, where everyone is acting blindly, or on bad, disorganized information — his MI-6 is called “the Circus” for a reason.
The Pigeon Tunnel’s final half hour jumps back to its subject’s personal life to offer a more in-depth look at le Carre’s relationship with his father, conman Ronnie Cornwell, who was incarcerated for portions of his son’s childhood and whose relationship with le Carre only grew more fraught late in life. What’s here is a psychological portrait of both an author and a spy, an investigation into the root causes for the impulse between both of le Carre’s professions. It’s a compelling narrative, to be sure, but also one that eventually seems in search of a point. Pointedly, there’s no moment where le Carre breaks down in tears or reaches a new realization. And while it’s great that the film is able to avoid such easy dramatics, it also shows Morris butting up against the limits of psychology. Le Carre is an odd subject for the director — not a profoundly evil man like Robert McNamara, Donald Rumsfeld, or Steve Bannon (who can all, Morris proved, be given enough rope with which to hang themselves), nor someone with a strange, compelling story, like the subjects of Tabloid or Gates of Heaven. Instead, this is a man who was part of the Cold War machine and whose work, disillusioned and even-handed as it may be, proceeds from a set of liberal ideological assumptions. Morris, with all his psychoanalytical investigation divested of ideology, can muster few concrete answers about what shaped the most literary of spy novelists. Le Carre is quick to compare himself to the metaphorical room harboring all the secrets of the state: access only reveals the room to be empty. Taken as a final interview with one of the great writers of the second half of the 20th Century, The Pigeon Tunnel is a joy — an engaging time spent with a lively, entertaining mind. As a new documentary from one of the masters of the form, however, it appears minor; a film lacking in purpose and new insight. — CHRIS MELLO
Back in 2006, five years after 9/11, the question of when enough time had passed for Hollywood to grapple with a national tragedy was a conversation at the forefront of pop culture, with audiences greeting films like United 93 and World Trade Center with something between apprehension and outright rejection. No one is likely to confuse Dumb Money, a foul-mouthed comedy about Redditors inflating the value of GameStop’s stock to stick it to hedge fund managers, with Paul Greengrass’ unflinching account of sacrifice in the face of terrorism, but there’s sure to be a “too soon” quality for many viewers. Set during 2020 and 2021, Dumb Money is far from the first film or TV show to address Covid-19 (masks and hand sanitizer show up in movies all the time), but it does speak directly to the societal malaise the culture was living under and how people kind of lost their minds during lockdown. It’s a time capsule of isolation, loved ones cruelly taken from us, poor masking technique, mass closures, errant coughs causing anxiety attacks, and the overriding sensation that wealthy assholes were living it up while everyone else was terrified that the bottom might fall out at any moment. It’s not a film about the pandemic per se, but is rather a curious financial news story that feels like it only could have happened during the single dumbest time to be alive. If nothing else, the aptly titled Dumb Money captures that period with unnerving clarity. Its other virtues, however, remain very much up for debate.
Based on Ben Mezrich’s 2021 nonfiction book The Antisocial Network — perhaps the most startling film credit of the year is the Winklevoss twins turning up as executive producers here — the film is ostensibly about Keith Gill, an analyst for MassMutual and amateur investor who, during the pandemic, started live streaming his thoughts on stocks he believed were being undervalued by the market. Webcasting under the name Roaring Kitty and a regular presence on the Reddit forum “wallstreetbets,” Keith is a soft-spoken dork (between this and The Fabelmans, Paul Dano is in danger of becoming typecast) with long, stringy hair, a red martial arts bandana, and a truly mortifying collection of cat t-shirts. And like many of us, Keith was just trying to stay sane while camped out in his home. A young father and husband (Shailene Woodley, plays his supportive wife, Caroline, in a bit of a nothing part), Keith poured his entire savings into buying stock of GameStop, an archaic brick-and-mortar video game retailer that’d been all but left for dead. Believing that the fundamentals remained strong and the negatives were overstated, he sensed growth potential. Or, as he succinctly explains to his growing online fanbase, even becoming an unofficial catchphrase, “I just like the stock.”
Keeping tabs on retail investors like Keith are predatory hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen, again serving as an antagonist of sorts to his The Fabelmans co-star, Dano) of Melvin Capital Management. Gabe, when he’s not trying to tear down a beachfront mansion in order to build himself a private tennis court, is leveraging his multi-billion dollar fund to short the GameStop stock, viewing the entire thing as akin to taking candy from a baby. For those who don’t recall the lessons of Margot Robbie in a bathtub, shorting is betting against the performance of a stock, making more money the worse it does; for the purposes of this particular tale, what’s important to remember is that while typical investors’ losses are limited to the amount they’ve spent, someone shorting a stock is theoretically on the hook for unlimited damages should it over-perform. Gabe and other hedge fund managers like Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman) love amateur investors like Keith, pumping “dumb money” into a rigged system, losing their kids’ college funds and mortgage payments chasing whims and trends, while money managers continuously rake in cash and remain insulated from actual consequences. However, riding an unexpected populist wave coupled with a large dollop of coordinated nihilism care of message board edgelords, the GameStop stock steadily rose over months, to the point that shares that had traded for under $2 a year earlier briefly got as high as nearly $500. The “short squeeze” inspired an industry panic, leading to ethically questionable practices by electronic trading companies, a flurry of cable news hits, the interest of some of the worst people on earth (including Elon Musk and Barstool Sports’ “El Presidente” Dave Portnoy), and even congressional hearings. Also memes. So many memes.
Although Keith is effectively the film’s protagonist, Dumb Money is in reality a sprawling ensemble; encompassing half a dozen retail investors, following his advice through their phones and computers, hanging on his every word — “diamond hands” becomes a mantra as investors make an implicit pledge to not sell their shares at the first sign of trouble which would screw over everyone else. We meet a hospital nurse and single mother in Pittsburgh (America Farrera), two college student lovers in Austin (Talia Ryder and Myha’la Herrold), and an actual GameStop retail employee in Detroit (Anthony Ramos). Also, Pete Davdison is hanging around pulling typical Pete Davidson antics as Keith’s ne’er-do-well brother (his disregard for hygiene is all the more horrifying when you remember the context). These characters serve largely as a Greek chorus, commenting on actions almost entirely outside of their control beyond continuing to dump their modest savings into the stock. This underscores the biggest problem with the film: none of these people are really responsible for this phenomenon, but are rather merely passionate participants being carried along by it. It’s akin to watching a group of people standing around a craps table while another player is on an epic run: they want the hot hand to continue because they can benefit from it, but they have no actual agency other than deciding when to stop putting chips on the table and walk away.
The film is decentralized by design. None of these characters cross paths with one another, are able to take concrete actions, or possess some special insight that allows them to game the system — even Keith, by his own admission, has difficulty accounting for why the stock exploded the way it did. The most common refrain uttered throughout the film (other than “holy fucking shit”) is “what do we do?” Roaring Kitty hasn’t posted anything in a day, what do we do? The value of the stock appears to have reached its apex, what do we do? The Reddit forum they all subscribe to is taken down. The mobile trading app, RobinHood, is no longer accepting orders for GameStop. In every instance, our characters huddle like terrified lemmings, unsure of whether to fling themselves off a fiscal cliff until their bandana-wearing demagogue appears in a small window on their computers, assuring them everything will be okay and to hold the line. It may reflect the behavior of actual amateur investors, but it makes for middling cinema.
Dumb Money is directed by Craig Gillespie, a one-time journeyman filmmaker whose more recent output (I, Tonya, the miniseries Pam & Tommy) could best be described as a more glib Adam McKay. The commentary of the film is your basic snobs vs. slobs dynamic, with the Plotkins and Griffins of the world established as uncaring masters of the universe eating gourmet food at rented-out resorts and ostentatious mansions — in an observant nod, all the private masseuses and personal chefs wear masks around the residence and are never told “thank you” — while our sympathetic characters trudge off into the cold to do essential jobs, living and dying with the stock price ticking up a dollar here or there. While working-class folk question the fairness of a system that feels stacked against them — this is the second time this year that Ferrera gets to deliver an earnest monologue about what a soul-crushing time it is to be alive — hedge fund bros and technocrats like Sebastian Stan’s RobinHood co-CEO throw raging house parties in the middle of a pandemic. The righteous anger is justified, but the class warfare and perverse pleasure of watching Plotkin’s hedge fund hemorrhage a billion dollars a day predictably gives way to the realization that the entire “stonks” phenomenon was essentially a blip on the radar that resulted in little systemic change. A handful of regular people cashed out, a scummy hedge fund went under, and nobody faced prosecution despite lying to Congress (we’re also meant to chortle at a postscript where we learn Robinhood’s IPO fell on its face). The entire film feels designed to trick people into eating their vegetables and perhaps learn a thing or two about stock manipulation by reducing the story to nice, hard-working people who just want to pay for their children’s braces vs. slimy captains of industry with wine collections. But the film fails to capture how much this market disruption was driven by the sort of irony and “burn it all down” cynicism that’s given us much of what’s been awful about the last decade or so. A more introspective film might be a little rueful of catching a tiger by its tail. Instead, we get a major motion picture about the nobility of anonymous Internet trolls. Terrific. — ANDREW DIGNAN
The Breaking Ice
Singaporean filmmaker Anthony Chen’s most impressive career achievement to-date might have come during the 2013 Golden Horse Awards, when his debut feature, Ilo Ilo, won the Best Picture prize, in the process beating out Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster, Johnnie To’s Drug War, and Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin. Chen’s second film, Wet Season, is a pretty good, if a bit generically plotted, May-December romance story between a teacher and one of her students. The relationships are complex and nuanced, helped by a terrific lead performance from Yeo Yann Yann (lately seen on the Disney+ TV series American Born Chinese, alongside Michelle Yeoh and Daniel Wu). Chen’s latest feature — and his second this year, after an English language film that premiered at Sundance — is Mainland Chinese production The Breaking Ice, which premiered at Cannes and is now playing as part of TIFF’s Centrepiece section.
Liu Haoran (star of the Detective Chinatown series) plays Haofeng, a lonely young man from Shanghai who finds himself in Yanji, a town on the frozen border between China and North Korea. Wandering around, Haofeng meets and befriends a tour guide, Nana, played by Zhou Dongyu (Soul Mate, This is Not What I Expected), and her friend, Xiao (Qu Chuxiao, from The Wandering Earth), who works in his aunt’s restaurant. The three youths roam around the town for a few days, drinking, dancing, seeing the sights, and trying to walk up to a remote mountain lake, all the while slowly revealing tiny bits of the backstory that led them to be sad twentysomethings.
Most of said backstory is left vague, which is fine because it doesn’t really matter anyway. Zhou’s Nana gets something close to a coherent narrative — her past involves something about being a figure skater and injuring her foot — but her two male counterparts really don’t. We know that Liu’s Haofeng and Qu’s Xiao are both melancholy, unfulfilled, but the film doesn’t probe to deeply, seemingly viewing this as a generation-specific ennui. On the otherhand, Nana’s story, which vaguely involves being a figure skater and injuring her foot, tends to seem petty in comparison to whatever it is that we imagine the near-but-not-quite-suicidal Haofeng is going through.
To Chen’s credit, one can easily imagine a lesser director playing up Nana’s quirkiness, framing things almost entirely from the male Haofeng’s perspective, and giving us a kind of Chinese Garden State (God forbid). Thankfully, Chen just lets his three actors wander around, finding small bits of business for them to do — eating noodles in a park at 4:00 AM, trying to steal books from a bookstore, having somewhat awkward sex — and the film is all the better for it. Many of the images Chen finds are quite lovely, if conventional: the snowy mountain, walls of lights, various clubs of probably just as disaffected youths enjoying the various singers on-stage, a maze built out of colored blocks of ice that might as well have a big sign with the world “Metaphor” posted on it in blinking lights. All in all, one could call The Breaking Ice a much less rigorous, and thus somewhat more mainstream-appealing, Millennium Mambo. — SEAN GILMAN
“Someone’s inside.” These two words, uttered with ominous clarity, spur Jason Yu’s invigorating debut, Sleep, into malevolent and mysterious somnolence; for in the world of dreams, what exactly constitutes “inside” isn’t quite established. For young couple Soo-jin (Jung Yu-mi) and Hyun-su (Lee Sun-kyun), their cozy apartment in suburban Korea is their sanctum from the pressures of a nation’s relentless capitalist economy. One night, Hyun-su, seated upright at the foot of the bed facing an open door, senses that this refuge has been violated. But after Soo-jin goes to investigate, and returns perplexed and unsuccessful at locating the source of the disturbance, a deeper, non-material interpretation is insinuated. Hyun-su begins sleepwalking, rising each night to wolf down raw meat from the fridge, scratch his face bloody, and perpetuate terrible violence. Something’s inside him, physically, and when the increasingly frantic duo aren’t able to distill it — whether through upping the dosage their doctor prescribes or through administering the rites of casual superstition — they do as all good philosophers do: investigate further. Naturally, this takes them into supernatural territory. If something is indeed inside Hyun-su, but can’t be physically manifested, then where else to look but the mind (or, if you like, the soul)?
In a sense, Sleep straddles the tantalizing nexus of modern horror’s metaphysical trinity — the corporeal, the psychological, and the otherworldly — without offering the certainty of any. Split into three acts, Yu’s screenplay corresponds roughly to these dimensions, although one would do well not to simplify them respectively. There’s a levity built into the proceedings which adopts a vaguely comedic register almost complicit in taunting the hapless but indomitable couple. While Hyun-su remains afflicted by what science terms REM sleep behavior disorder, Soo-jin’s pregnant with their first child; between her daily corporate grind as an executive (a third-act PowerPoint presentation will provoke hearty guffaws) and unease for postpartum in the vicinity of her progressively unhinged husband, the hijinks engaged in by Hyun-su in his sleep, in turn, cause Soo-jin to lose plenty of her own. Meanwhile, Hyun-su faces an ordeal of his own: the allegedly “acclaimed” actor, who’s revealed to mostly fill supporting roles in soaps, checks into rehab and has to adjust to new restrictions on his nocturnal movements. Our can-do lovebirds eventually find their dynamic subtly reversed: Hyun-su retreats, over time, into a state of unbothered serenity while Soo-jin, especially with the baby’s safety to worry about, dives headfirst into her own sleepless madness.
What’s so refreshing about Sleep, then, is its uncanny yet sensitive exploration of the microcosm that is married life, as viewed through the lens of the titular activity — which happy couples do, both in and after the heat of passion, while unhappy ones shirk all but the most literal meaning. Sleep is a biological process as much as a social one, and Yu speaks to the anxieties inherent in the black box of consciousness when he invokes, through spooky possession, the even spookier dispossession of human agency. Like the best horror films, Yu’s ascribes something unnatural to biological naturalism and, in doing so, actively questions our hubristic faith in the latter. With a keen eye for set design, Yu also exploits his couple’s apartment’s space to elucidate both flourishing romance and weary claustrophobia, sometimes concurrently; for a first feature that culminates in a frenetic and almost ridiculous third act, Sleep balances its emotional and narrative motivations exceedingly well. — MORRIS YANG