Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Apr 11, 2024 6:09 pm 
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Noble rot

Ena Sendijarević's second feature is a deliciously shot and costumed drama about colonial rot; it relates to Lucretia Martel's Zama and Felipe Glvez Haberle's The Settlers. This time the focus is a Dutch settlement on an Indonesian island around 1900. The claustrophobia is enhanced by shooting in square ratio as she did in her debut film also with dp Emo Weemhoff. In her Locarno review forVariety Jessica Kiang calls Sendijarević "a formidable talent with an eye for absurdity in Academy ratio, and a feel for the manicured, placid surfaces that contain rot and rebellion just as corsetry cinches in flesh." The moment is the end of a sugar plantation regime after the Dutch owner Jan (Hans Dagelet) - only first names are given - suddenly and rather suspiciously dies. His widow Agathe (Renée Soutendijk) summons his weak, cowardly son Cornelis (Florian Myjer) and the latter's prickly and prominently pregnant wife Josefien (Lisa Zweerman) to come from the Netherlands to take over.

Agathe is a deeply dug-in colonialist type like Isabelle Huppert's character in Claire Denis' film about Africa, White Material: no matter how much it's all over, she's never going to be willing to leave the country and go home. Josefien and Cornelis on the other hand have little intention of staying. You almost wonder what they came for. Since she's horny all the time (sometimes even a bedpost will do) Josefien may be there to get laid. She's interested in the sexy leading local guy, Reza (Muhammad Khan), the most notable of the farm and factory workers, who're now on strike. Reza is only interested in the housekeeper, Siti (Hayati Azis), whom he wants to run away with. She isn't interested. Local women say Siti thinks she's superior to them;; she says she is and she's probably right. But is that a safe position?

Everything is a little absurd and rather surreal. The mise en scène is lush and beautiful: rich interiors, outdoor greenery as rich and smooth as the drawings in a children's book. And lots of locals grouped around in period costume; a big game hunt; handsome hand-drawn people-carts. Everything feels wonderful, and wrong, a toy world poised to topple.

All focus gradually shifts to the inward-looking and remote Siti, who has a special status. She has a son by the late Jan, the haughty young Karel (Rio Kaj Den Haas). A bewhiskered Reverend (Peter Faber) who's also the local notary, comes to announce that Jan, whom we've seen taking Karel big game hunting with him, drew up a will leaving the entire plantation to the boy. At this point the sardonic plot assumes the quality of an endgame. The family appears stymied by this development. Cornelis plays feebly with the idea of using foul means to get rid of Karol. In fact at the end the boy is all that remains.

Everybody in this movie is so obnoxious and unloveable you can't wait to see them squirm, while Siti enjoys watching. It's almost like Sendijarević is turning them on a spit - slow cookery - until finally the enjoyment must end and things get really hot and quite ovdrdone. The pleasure is in the long warmup: the finale is abrupt and extreme, though it fits in with the surreal style that has always been there.

The colonial mansion is a World of Interiors delight with large ebony fixtures and furniture and striking eye-candy colored walls, a rose-red that glows, a bright green of the sort Howard Hodgkin loved. The Dutch women wear form-fitting frilly thin ivory-colored frocks that look as if they will melt and crumble away in the heat. As Karel, Rio Kaj Den Haas is a decoration in himself. The mixture of races has made something sleek and pretty. He has no trouble feeling superior. He actually giggles watching a native man get beaten.

As William Repass put it in Slant at Locarno, this film like Zama "takes aim at a less conspicuous layer of colonization than outright atrocity," choosing to dramatize "the futility, the hypocrisy, the stultifying blows to cultural diversity that take place when one people proclaim the right to exploit another’s labor and resources in the name of civilization." And this is true, but it's never put so bluntly as that, and what you may take away from Sweet Dreams won't be such generalizations so much as the discomfort of transplanted westerners and how tastily done it all is. All the details are satisfying, including VIncent Sinceretti's "extravagantly rich sound design" (Kiang) that's "so multilayered that you can differentiate the crickets from the gnats from the omnipresent, whining mosquitoes." They especially like to bite Josefien, whose face gets red and blotchy from smacking them.

A Letterboxd contributor calls Sweet Dreams "The Yorgos Lanthimosification of Triangle of Sadness." Another riffs further: "It’s like Triangle of Sadness, The Favourite and The Mosquito Coast all got put into a blender to make a tropical cocktail and this was the juicy result. I’ll be dreaming of those coloured walls for days." I'll be dreaming of them too.

Sweet Dreams, 102 mins., debuted Aug. 5, 2023 at Locarno, where Renée Soutendijk won a Best Performance award. It was the Netherlands' Official Selection for the 96th Academy Awards, and was included in at least a dozen international festivals, including Göteborg, Taipei, Thessaloniki and Toronto, and received numerous nominations and awards. Dekanalog is releasing it in the US Fri. Apr. 12, 2024, opening for an exclusive theatrical run at New York City's Metrograph, with a streaming premiere on Metrograph At Home, where it will be available for an exclusive one-month engagement.

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