FANTASIA’20— ‘Sleep’ is a Disorienting Nightmare about the Past

A still from 'Sleep'. Marlene (Sandra Hüller) stands outside a hospital shown in a wide shot. She is wearin a hospital gown, her hair cropped and cheekbones prominent in the nights shadows, she looks disorientated.
Fantasia Festival

In German director Michael Venus’ feature debut, the past and present interrogate themselves through a series of Lynchian dreamscapes, inexplicable imagery, and a convoluted narrative more intent on discomforting us than acquainting us with a linear story. And very much in the vein of David Lynch, the film is understood better when you focus less on trying to completely understand it – though, that doesn’t always work in its favor. In Sleep, a mother and daughter are plagued by a mysterious hotel with a sinister past, and what is initially presented as something of a simple haunted house tale with a mystery waiting to unfold finds itself like a perverted rendition of The Shining.

Marlene (Sandra Hüller), a flight attendant with an erratic sleep schedule, experiences night terrors from which she emerges unable to breathe, and sees visions of a hotel and three men who committed suicide there. Though her daughter, Mona (Swantje Kohlhof), makes plans to get her mother to see a psychologist, Marlene finds an advertisement for the real-life hotel and decides to go straight to the source of her fear. There, she not only discovers that the three men who killed themselves were real and were the founders of the hotel, but that one of the hotel’s caretakers is the daughter of one the dead men. In her room, she has a panic fit and sees a snarling boar standing before her. She awakens in a hospital nearby, afflicted by shock-induced paralysis.

Mona then embarks on an investigation to discover exactly what’s going on with this hotel and what happened to her mother. The hotel is situated in one of those remote, small towns where everyone knows one another and isn’t keen to welcome outsiders, and the hotel’s owners, wedded couple Otto (August Schmölzer) and Lore (Marion Kracht), are equally inhospitable and odd. Though Lore is particularly unwelcoming, Otto’s off-putting friendliness is counterbalanced by his strong, quite nationalistic desire to bring the hotel back to its former glory (at one point, Otto makes a reference to “fake news”). But instead of finding clarity the longer she stays there – the hotel’s sole patron, mind you – Mona’s quest only becomes more warped, the answers she seeks becoming lost in a labyrinthine, living nightmare, equal parts hereditary, hallucinatory, and utterly horrific.

It’s hard to know exactly what the film is trying to say about the inescapable nature of the past, of how people are haunted as opposed to structures, how we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of those who came before us; how trauma is inherited. It’s an amalgamation of ideas with no clear unifying crux, seemingly intent on forcing the audience to find one for ourselves. As the unsavory origins of the hotel unfold, nothing feels any clearer or completely certain, the only tangible intent being to completely disorient. People seemingly attacked are revealed to be only harming themselves, a mysterious incubus haunts the grounds and whose existence is dubious; Mona spends time with some of the local young people, then has a vision of them performing a ritual on her. Indeed, the town’s inhabitants and other hotel employees all seem to be in on whatever’s going on at the hotel, or maybe they’re just products of proximity to its insanity.

Drawing inspiration from the aforementioned Stephen King, Lynch, and, arguably, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, Sleep is a smorgasbord of allusions that does, ultimately, gel into its own thing. But it can be a frustrating film when it is not mystifying – scenes drag, tension dissipates, and the confusion can give way to exasperation. Where Lynch’s films force you to comfortably embrace the enigmatic, Sleep doesn’t seem to know what to do with it, too hesitant to fully give into the unknown as it’s preoccupied with its own impossible mystery. The film feels like it’s trying to solve its own riddle and the audience will want to as well. When it becomes increasingly evident that there is no answer, many will abandon ship. Still, it’s a confidently executed and striking debut from Michael Venus, and will click slightly better for those of us who prefer our mysteries unsolved.

Sleep is playing as part of the virtual edition of Fantasia Festival 2020

by Brianna Zigler

Brianna is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the ShadowsA Serious ManLord of the Rings: The Return of the KingSwiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs

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