Fantasia Review: Sleep
At its best, horror has the unique ability to tap into the far reaches of the human psyche, bringing to the forefront our collective fears and anxieties, forcing us to confront our shared histories, beliefs, and social dynamics. Sleep, the debut feature from director Michael Venus, recognizes the power of the genre, mining German history to craft a tale that hits uncomfortably close to home in a world where the worst humanity has to offer is too often on full display.
Venus and co-writer Thomas Friedrich certainly aren’t lacking in ambition, weaving together the past and the present through intersecting dreamscapes, supernatural folklore, and hypnotic imagery. The multigenerational story begins with Marlene (Sandra Hüller), a flight attendant suffering from recurring, near-catatonic dreams about a rural hotel, a spate of murders, and a wild boar that seems to be stalking her at every turn, before shifting to her daughter Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof), determined to unravel the mysteries behind whatever forces are haunting her mother before she succumbs as well.
Sleep’s first half is all set-up in the standard fashion of today’s arthouse horror: slow-burning, with stylized visuals and a generally creepy and ominous atmosphere as opposed to explicit scares — there’s enough there to be intriguing, though it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve seen this before. But the back nine of the film is where Venus and Friedrich’s concept really clicks into place. Despite some convoluted logic and wheel-spinning, it becomes clear that their true interests lie in exploring a set of complex and upsetting, but distinctly human, notions. Sleep becomes a film about hereditary trauma and inherited destiny, as well as the destructive horror of guilt, positing that the inability to atone for — or even process — your own actions turns inward, constructing an armor of justification that twists you into something arguably worse than before.
Given the film’s country of origin, it’s easy to read this as specifically commenting on Germany’s reckoning with its own particular history — and if anything, the film is almost too encouraging of this interpretation, forsaking all semblance of subtlety by the time the nationalism-heavy third act rolls around. But the filmmakers have enough awareness of the power of symbolism and the unsettling nature of ambiguity to infuse the proceedings with a level of universal despair, embodied most effectively by Hüller’s supporting performance as a woman literally paralyzed by the sins of the past. There’s an uneasy sense of inevitability as the film questions whether we’re destined to not only repeat our ancestors’ mistakes, but suffer their victimization anew as well.
Sleep doesn’t fully succeed in its narrative execution — its attempts to grapple with these questions and their ramifications results in the juggling of too many ideas to be fully coherent — but as a mood piece that seeks to linger with the audience and prompt uncomfortable introspection, it’s a bold endeavor from an impressive new voice.