Sweet Dreams (2024)

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Sweet Dreams (2024)

A weird and unforgettable but not entirely successful movie, “Sweet Dreams” turns colonialism into pitch-black slapstick.

In 1900 on a remote Indonesian island, a sugar plantation baron named Jan (Hans Dagelet) died or so it seems. “Seems” is the operative word; as far as most of the characters know, he’s probably dead, but they don’t have a body. This complicates the inevitable struggle for who will control the plantation and decide what becomes of it. The situation could’ve been the beginning of a murder mystery, but Sendijarević isn’t interested in playing those kinds of (delightful!) narrative games. Almost every story point in this film is given to you right away or foreshadowed/telegraphed. What’s left are the hows of storytelling and whys of character.

The important thing to know is that Jan had a young son named Karel (Rio Kaj Den Haas) through his illicit relationship with an Indonesian plantation worker named Siti (Hayati Azis). When he dies, his son Cornelis (Florian Myjer) and pregnant wife Josefien (Lisa Zweerman) leave Holland to sail around the world to meet his widow Agathe (Renée Soutendijk) in the muddy jungle to figure out what happens next. What happens next is anger, resentment, and skullduggery occasioned by Jan’s decision to leave everything to Karel. Grief makes people do extreme things; grief plus the expectation of wealth turns up the heat from madness to danger. A plantation worker named Reza (Muhammad Khan), who has been agitating on behalf of his fellow workers and even inspired them to go on strike over nonpayment of wages, becomes key here: He positions himself as someone who will not only take the fight to The Man (and his women), but also charm Siti into leaving with Karel and starting a new life as his partner.

Unfortunately, the movie is thuddingly obvious throughout its first third. Every basic observation about the absurdities and evils of colonialism is not just made but practically served up on a silver platter under a spotlight. A cockroach crawls through the remains of an elegant family dinner. Josefien (Lisa Zweerman) disembarks from a carriage that’s gotten stuck in on a wet road; the movie takes its time noticing her fancy boots getting dirty in the mud. It’s not that anything the film is telling us feels untrue, but it’s all stuff we probably already knew yet are still being offered as subversive and audacious.

Things start to improve when Jan posthumously acknowledges in writing that he had a son with his mistress, and that boy will inherit everything. After that, “Sweet Dreams” becomes something vaguely resembling a Coen brothers movie in which obtuse, deluded, or repulsive people plot against one another and get what they deserve either because the insular world that previously overlooked their glaring flaws collectively decides to take note and pass judgment, or because characters who think they’re ruthless or clever turn out to be cowardly and/or dumb.

The “Sweet Dreams” were directed by Sendijarević, filmed by Emo Weemhoff, and edited by Lot Rossmark. This is the movie shot with a square 4×3 “Academy” frame, often featuring wide-angle lenses that grotesquely distort people and things (especially when the camera changes its position quickly). Almost every establishing shot is symmetrically composed, but not like Stanley Kubrick or Wes Anderson; rather like the kind of fan art you might find in a fetishistic tribute to them. Things objects and bodies within each shot are arranged as if they were elements in a glassed-in art installation. It’s a zoo in there.

The movie watches its characters with coldly analytical, sometimes withering precision up to a point. Then it breaks into something more overtly lyrical and even dreamlike; at this later stage, it seems less interested in satire or slapstick than in presenting strange-startling-beautiful-images-situations-detours (often involving elemental forces, water, fire, wind, earth). The story doesn’t so much end as stop but not before delivering several moments/set pieces that are shot (and edited: cross-cut, in one case) with an expressionistically modern-art-ish brand of mysterious-yet-unexplained deliberateness.

Some of the flights of fancy during these final twenty minutes are so beautiful that they retroactively redeem/justify/make up for what now seems like the overbearing earlier portions of the film those passages where everything seems too obviously trying hard to be something more than what it is; where all involved parties come off as desperate (because they’re determined) to get across their intentions; where certain gestures can’t help but feel contrived because we’ve seen them done elsewhere better etc ad infinitum.

There’s a very long take near the end that’s as surprising and excessive yet perfect as one in David Lynch and Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks: The Return,” where a man mops an entire bar floor to Booker T. and the MGs’ “Green Onion” the full-length track of it, no less. This may well be a filmmaker who grows stronger/more-original-the-further-she-delves-into-her-subconscious/mind/the-deepest-parts-of-herself

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