aka MIENTRAS DUERMES [Spain]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY: Now
RUNNING TIME: 102 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A man is about to throw himself off the top of a hotel. He is Cesar, and he tells of how he got to this dreadful place in his life. He works as a concierge in a hotel. Despite putting in a huge amount of over time, he doesn’t seem to be appreciated by either his co-workers or the clients, with the exception of a kindly elderly lady and especially the beautiful Clara, who is his girlfriend, though the two don’t make it obvious in public. Cesar goes about his work with a quiet dignity, but it is soon revealed he is a psychopath, a cruel, evil man who is on a mission to make the unsuspecting Clare miserable and is certainly not her boyfriend……
I don’t know why it’s taken Sleep Tight two years ago to get a release over here except for some festivals [I saw it at Frightfest]. Nor do I know why said release is so limited and most people will see it on DVD or Blu-Ray. This is because it’s a near-masterpiece, a film which, as soon as it had finished, I started proclaming to anyone who would listen that it was the best movie of the year [which is cheating a little, as it was actually made and released in Spain in 2011]. It is an absolutely stunning exercise in almost-unbearable tension and audience manipulation which is up there with the best of Alfred Hitchcock [and I don’t say that lightly], Roman Polanski and Michael Haneke, all of which it is influenced by, as well as, I suppose, Someone Is Watching Me and that sub-genre of films where the psychopath is the main protagonist a la American Psycho. Sleep Tight shares with that film some black humour, but the feel is very different; for a start, we actually rather like Patrick Bateman, don’t we? We never like Cesar in Sleep Tight, which is a journey into the heart of darkness of such harrowing proportions that at times I found it hard to watch, and yet I couldn’t move, absolutely glued to the screen. Even if you don’t enjoy the film [and on one level I’m not sure I did], I don’t think anyone can deny it is superb filmmaking.
The opening scene cleverly gives us the impression that this is going to be a story about a nice guy who we will feel sorry for. Melancholy music plays as Cesar narrates about how he has tried to deal with life and just cannot cope anymore. Even after this, the first few flashbacks scenes just tell us that he is a bit lonely and un-appreciated, a belittled cog in a machine like many of us can relate to. He does though appear to have a gorgeous girlfriend in Clara, a lively, vivacious woman, full of life, the total opposite of Cesar. When he gets up from their bed in the morning and says goodbye as she sleeps, you think his life can’t be that bad, can it? For a while little happens as we are a given a sense of the dull, monotonous rhythm of Cesar’s life, and the film is certainly very slow in these early scenes, but hang on in there, because Sleep Tight will soon ramp up the intensity very suddenly and never lose it.
Clara returns to the apartment which appeared to be one that she and Cesar shared, but no it’s not, it’s just hers. Cesar actually lives in a dingy, dilapidated abode either on the ground floor or in the basement. Clara turns the radio up loud and starts dancing around her lodgings, like one of those awful scenes you often see in ‘rom coms’ where somebody starts prancing around because it’s supposed to be either uplifting or funny [remember that dreadful bit in Love Actually with Hugh Grant?]. Here though, it’s to show us how different Clara is from Cesar, a person full of the joys of living. It’s also to make more powerful the moment the film turns nasty, the moment it switches into pure evil, and as I sit here, writing this review, a day after I saw the film, I shudder thinking about it [yes, this film will leave scars]. Clara is dancing on the bed, than falls into a deep sleep, after which the camera pans down to under the bed where Cesar is under the bed, and this is the point where everything changes.
Cesar is on some kind of mission. He has obviously done this before, and Clara is his latest victim-to-be. Sleep Tight is not entirely specific about what Cesar does to women. Is he just trying to make them miserable, or does he intend to drive them to suicide? Nor do we find out why he does it, something which seems to have bothered some people, though I don’t think the film needs it. Cesar is just evil, something which cannot always be explained, it just is. At first the movie is vague about what Cesar is doing to Clara, but each time he pays a visit to her apartment [remember, his job means he has a key to it], we see more, and it’s not just him drugging her into a deep sleep. The film is actually quite restrained here, just telling us enough, and to be honest it’s horrible enough seeing this lovely [yes, I admit, I keep saying how nice Marta Etura is and have no shame in doing so!] young woman, who has done nothing wrong and has actually been one of the few people to be nice to Cesar] being tormented in this way, from simple nasty texts to the grimmest cockroach scene in ages!
Of course it’s not just Clara who Cesar is cruel to. He has a hospitalised mother, and some of the nastiest scenes simply involve him telling her the cruel things he is doing to Clara and she cannot respond, but the pained expression on her face is incredibly moving. There’s also a scene towards the end where in about thirty seconds he says unbearably cruel things to someone else and reduces her to such a wreck you think the person might top themselves. Cesar is never made sympathetic, and yet at certain points you may almost be on his side, and I’m not saying this because I’m mad. There are bits when Cesar is trapped in Clara’s room and needs to get out, and yes, I wanted him to get out, so brilliantly were my emotions being played with. Here, and in a few other scenes, you may nervously laugh too. The humour is often blacker than black, and you may slap yourself for laughing a few seconds after, but it somehow works and never ruins the tension. Especially notable is the strange relationship Cesar has with a young girl. She knows what he is up to and blackmails him into giving her things, first money, then…..a porno movie. Don’t laugh too much though, because this part of the story climaxes with a scene so nerve- wrecking you may find it impossible to watch.
The story develops like all good stories do, throwing in some twists and turns which never feel gratuitous. There is actually little violence, but there is one extremely bloody razor murder which to some may feel out of place, but to me is there to show what Cesar is capable of. More cliched perhaps are scenes where Cesar is being questioned by the local police inspector, with us being given the impression that he knows more than he is letting on, but I love these kind of scenes anyway and they show yet another side to Cesar, someone who can call most people’s bluff. Luis Tosar is utterly convincing as Cesar; it’s a mark of how much his performance affected me that I doubt the actor will be able to convince me in any other role I see of his; he will always be Cesar, the unrelenting but calm lunatic of this film, with that incredibly evil stare, his eyes revealing both a lack of anything approaching humanity and evil thoughts which you won’t even begin to want to imagine yourself.
Sleep Tight will probably confound most expectations in the way that is proceeds, though there was one point where I sensed a really sick bit of knowledge was going to be revealed and I wanted it so much not to be the case that I felt like crying. And then the ending…..well, I cannot go into too much detail, but imagine a typical ending of the kind you will find at the end of many sad romances. You know the ones; with a person thinking about having lost their love but it somehow making them stronger, with perhaps the reading of a letter, with…..well, I can’t say too much, but then imagine the cruellest ever twist on all this. Devilishly clever and incredibly cruel, you may feel like you’ve suffered an emotional shock yourself or at least a punch to the stomach, but I doubt you’d want the picture to end any other way. Though I was deeply affected, I also wanted to cheer, because of its bravery, total lack of compromise, and the fact that any happy ending would have felt totally untrue to the film and even a betrayal of it.
Director Jaume Balaguero of course made a name for himself with the great Rec films, but I think Sleep Tight is an even better piece of filmmaking. I had fears that he would overuse the ‘shakycam’ and other camera devices [remember his somewhat disappointing Darkness?] that would not be so appropriate for Sleep Tight, but I think the camera was only waved about in one fight scene, the majority of the film being shot in a very classical style. Lucas Vidal’s sombre and often restrained score sometimes seems to bravely hint at some humanity in its anti-hero. You will have no doubt realised by now, but I was totally and utterly blown away by Sleep Tight, which is one of the best three or four films about a psychopath I have ever seen. I also have a nasty feeling that it will lead to an American remake, which almost certainly will be inferior.