Credit: Emo Weemgoff / Lemming Film / Dekanalog
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film Horizon Line

Sweet Dreams — Ena Sendijarevic

April 15, 2024

A pregnant woman nearing delivery self-pleasures by rubbing her privates against a bedpost. An attempted murder, in a flavor reminiscent of the book of Genesis, sours and turns into a wealth of embarrassment, the very absurdity of violence inverted. The wife of a Dutch sugar plantation owner in Indonesia is chastised by her husband for speaking in the tongue of the natives. Suicide slows into a fully cinematic stasis, beautiful and defacing in its self-vapidity. This is the kooky, evocative world of Sweet Dreams, the new film co-produced by the Netherlands, Indonesia, Sweden, and Réunion (an island off the coast of Madagascar under the department of France) and the sophomore picture from the Bosnian-born, Dutch-based Ena Sendijarević. 

Dutch colonial control in Indonesia wanes right as the sugar plantation owner Jan (Hans Dagelet) dies. His wife, Agathe (Renée Soutendijk), chose not to help her husband in his final moments, coughing up a storm in their marital bed shortly after one of his frequent, non-consensual conquests of housemaid Siti (Hayati Azis). The shifting dynamics between these three, encapsulated in the events surrounding the old man’s demise, glimpses into the broader antagonistic and somewhat obfuscating relationship between Dutch colonists and the indigenous subaltern. Jan and Agathe have been here long enough that the latter shows not just a competence with the new tongue, but a comfortable command of it, which churns her husband’s military-grade chauvinism. 

Sendijarević seems to take more than a note from the colonial films of the great Claire Denis, which neither moralize on the brutality of unwelcome occupations, nor do they sanitize. Denis’ films often give preference to the perspectives of the colonizers without discarding the perspectives of the powerless. She also has a reputation as one of cinema’s great sensuous eyes for the balletic beauty of bodily movement, a sensibility that Sendijarević shares. Colonialism in Sweet Dreams is not a bloodied struggle to retain influence over a land and its people; colonialism here is monotonous, complicated in its effects, and with consequences for the colonizers as well as those they call subjects. And the lush, almost salacious bodily close-ups of the characters provoke “border crossing,” to apply VICE’s description of Denis to Sweet Dreams. Only after first teasing entry does Sendijarević emphatically deny access at that border.

For Denis, the colonizers often undergo psychological or even spiritual change; for Sendijarević, the effect is not strictly psychological, and certainly not moral, but almost all-encompassing. The colonial person changes into some other thing. The most literal example of this comes with Josefien (Lisa Zweerman), the horny and pregnant wife of Jan’s son Cornelis (Florian Myjer). The couple arrives from the Netherlands after hearing the “good news” of the patriarch’s passing in order to alleviate the “bad news” of the plantation’s economic endangerment thanks to the pesky striking workers. She attempts to seduce one of the plantation’s servants and grows frustrated when she can only attract the island’s mosquitos, her beautiful and almost silky-smooth skin welting and reddening with her every appearance. The mosquito bites that mark her visage might be the film’s best way to gauge the passing of time; her very presence is unwelcome and unnatural; the blood in her body belongs on other land, the mosquitos remind. 

Cornelis and Josefien make their trip with reluctance, though they hope to benefit financially from the venture. Cornelis speaks of the “backward” land in language so typical of professional Orientalists that one might encounter it in a post-colonial introductory text. Meanwhile, Sendijarević ponders the dwindling conclusion natural to colonial grips on power through Siti and her son Karel (Rio Kaj Den Haas), also Jan’s son. The incongruity of name and skin match the kid’s unique position bridging two identities of very different social positions and systems. His mere existence makes the insecure Cornelis, the Dutch-to-the-bone colonist, feel threatened. 

But the best image of this relationship of power comes not with Karel and instead in a scene with Josefien. The pregnant wife sees an opportunity to seduce Reza (Muhammad Khan), one of the family’s key servants. In the deep forest, the two of them find time alone alongside the mysterious green beauty of the trees and the secrecy of the wilderness when she gestures for a neck rub. As he rubs her, she unbuttons her shirt with the superficial intention of freeing the mobility of his hands to rub her and the more honest intention of sliding his hand down to her breasts. The rub has two views. When the camera is on Reza, we only see him; the woman he rubs is an unknowable and distant creature. When the camera is on Josefien, Reza’s darker-skinned hands break into the 4:3 aspect ratio to traverse her slouched shoulders in a warm light — only his hands. Reza has been reduced to an instrument of her pleasure, and their skin glimmers in a photographic sensuality reminiscent of the aforementioned Denis. The contrast evinced in this scene makes all the difference. The Dutch colonist receives something from their arrangement; the Indonesian servant does not. She pulls Reza’s hands down to her breast. He breaks into a laugh: her assumption to supremacy — an attempted claim to his body, one that ignores his pleasure and desire — can only be described as absurd.

DIRECTOR: Ena Sendijarevic;  CAST: Renée Soutendijk, Florian Myjer, Lisa Zweerman, Muhammad Khan;  DISTRIBUTOR: Dekanalog;  IN THEATERS: April 12;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 42 min.