SLEEPLESS BEAUTY [2020] [Grimmfest Easter Edition 2021 Review]

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The Soviet ambassador to Belgium is at the opening of an art exhibition when suddenly he’s shot, though the assassination attempt fails because he survives. Meanwhile Mira, a quiet young woman with seemingly few friends, returns home, has a bag put over her head, and wakes up to find herself locked in a large, dirty room where she’s going to be both mentally and physically tortured and isn’t going to be allowed any sleep, while all the time she’s being watched by people online….

Just over half way through this Soviet entry into the ‘torture porn’ subgenre I was really getting worried whether I was going to be able to write much about it. Of course that’s not necessarily a bad thing; I do seem to lack the gift of brevity these days, and even if I take into account that some of that may be down to me having more time within which to write my reviews, I really do want to try to make them shorter. But this film just seemed to consist of a woman being terrorised and brutalised in a dingy room, and there’s not much one can really say about that whether you like this kind of thing or not, except that it did seem to critique, if not in any particularly deep way, said subgenre. My heart sank as this stuff seemed to go on past the halfway part; I remain a liker of ‘rape/revenge’ movies but most of those move on to the revenge after the first half, with the latter being a sort of trial to go through so you can enjoy the justice being meted out thereafter. Of course there were the cuts away to subplots which seemed somewhat plonked in there, but what really didn’t help is that it was very obvious what was really being done to this woman and I expected it to be revealed as some supposed Big Twist near the end while I expected to sigh and shake my head at being taken for an idiot. Well, I was right in a way, but surprises also resulted while the film managed to get out of that damn room and stop being a series of indignities being forced on someone. As I type, certain details are vague, some things don’t tie together very well, but there will certainly be more to write about than I initially thought. After all, doesn’t something that could almost be described as Martyrs meets The Manchurian Candidate sound interesting?

So we open with our ambassador saying a few words which are being translated into English, while we can’t help but be a little distracted by the fact that the English subtitles for her translating aren’t always the same as the subtitles that are under his actual talking. However, at least I got to review this particular version; there’s also an English dubbed edition which a couple of minutes of research indicated isn’t very good in terms of its voice work. The guy is shot as the screen goes all shaky because we’ve been watching this from the point of view of somebody’s camera. Then we cut to some online messaging and the information that “We heard that the bastard survived, what you going to do”? Answer, “He’ll be killed by his wife”. This is obviously some sort of secret political organisation, and we get a sense of their power and reach when loads of little screens fill one big screen, cameras everywhere clearly observing and recording; though it’s perhaps not as frightening as all that considering the surveillance society we live in these days. One of these screens observes Mira, who’s filling her car with petrol before driving to a house, and what’s sinister is that all the shots of her seem like they’re from the point of view of a camera. She buys some fish and a fish tank in this huge shop which looks far too big for the place it’s in judging by the exterior shots, but anyway, she goes home. On the steps leading up to her apartment she passes a man who grins at her and says “Hi” before then sniffing a dropped coat. I doubt that we’re supposed to think that this person is in some way connected with what follows, but it sets an unsettling mood anyway until that bag goes over her head and she passes out.

The room she awakes in is clearly in some disused factory. It’s far larger than we tend to get in films like this, which means less claustrophobia, more vulnerability, especially when we realise that she’s being watched on a webcam which also has a live chat. Mira is told via loudspeaker what her life is now going to consist of. She will not be allowed any sleep, to the point that any sleep “attempts will be interrupted”, and to someone like me who sometimes suffers from insomnia that’s a really horrifying concept, but unfortunately [actually maybe fortunately] we don’t get much of a sense of this. We do learn her daily routine though which consists of: morning routine, exercises, morning activities, free time, entertainment programme, virtual reality immersion – and then, after eighteen minutes, we get the title of the film come up on the screen which could be some kind of record. The first thing that Mira is subjected to is the voice of a little girl playing the part of a child she had aborted, and it’s quite upsetting even before Mira has to ferret about inside this disgusting bucket. She’s given challenges, and asked questions, and if she fails she’ll usually be tasered by a balaclava-wearing guy who also likes to drag her around by her hair, though sometimes the penalty for a wrong answer will be even worse, cue for one particularly grueling scene which shows that director Pavel Khvaleev and witer Aleksandra Khacaleeva have a knack for adding extra unsettling detail to what are already nasty situations, comprising in this instance of somebody wearing a mask with a face on it backwards so instead of us seeing the terror on someone’s face we see a totally immobile visage. There’s a bit with rats that will also make many viewers uncomfortable, though there’s not nearly as much graphic detail as you may expect, nor is there any rape or any sexual element to the proceedings, something for which I was actually grateful. The sight of the man wielding his taser reminded me of that scene in I Spit On Your Grave 2 which in its uncut form I really had trouble watching, but thankfully nothing as horrible takes place.

It’s all gripping, the choice of lengthy still shots and very slow inward zooms add extra uneasiness, and Polina Davydova makes us feel her ordeal even with the camera tending to hold off getting close. I didn’t feel that her character not being able to sleep was transmitted enough though, and not just because she’s too lively during a few moments, but maybe I’m just saying this because of my difficult battles with sleep in the past and it’s possible that most other viewers won’t feel that way. In any case, the one-note nature of things get a bit wearing after a while, at least if you’re like me and have always had mixed feelings about ‘torture porn’ , though we do occasionally go elsewhere to the investigation of Mira’s disappearance and, rather cryptically, some divorce proceedings. And we know that Mira’s ordeal is some sort of experiment; we learn this early on, so this shouldn’t count as a spoiler. But a few interesting threads become gradually more to the fore, and then things suddenly change about an hour in, heralded by a montage which is almost genius in how freaky it is. Early on in, we’re told that part of Mira’s day involves virtual reality. We see her totally terrified by what she’s seeing, but we don’t actually what she’s see seeing until now. And by god it’s worth the wait, a barrage of hugely grotesque, perverse animated imagery, as if Terry Gilliam had joined forces with H. R. Giger and Hieronymus Bosch. Strange creatures, bodily functions, pain in the brain and sexuality combine to create something that taps into something very primal and really gets under the skin, and which will be something that you won’t forget in a long time – and by god I hope it doesn’t keep me awake as I have to be somewhere early tomorrow morning.

If there had been nothing else of worth in Sleepless Beauty, I’d still recommend it for the above-described sequence alone, but its final third is consistently strong, the more disparate plot elements neatly tying together so that at one point we get the irony of Mira watching part of her own story on a TV screen without understanding what she’s seeing. But be warned, it’s depressing and bitter. Some things may not be is particularly believable for reasons I won’t go into, not because I’m being lazy but because I don’t want to give any more away than I’ve already done, and some details [like the appearance of twins] seem added just to add eerie effect, but this film certainly has its themes, and even its political aspects even if they’re more suggested than stated, and I don’t just mean the hinting at of the likes of Guantanamo Bay and the Bagram Theatre Internment Facility. Maybe in the near future I’ll do another review for this film that gives more away because I’d be freed up to go into things more. One thing I do can go into is the commentary on ‘torture porn’ itself, in the form of the chat where people observe Mira and comment on what’s happening to her. “What is this shit”? asks one person who doesn’t seem much pleased with what he sees on his screen, but most others in the chat feel differently. We expect some cruel and misogynistic comments and these expectations are fulfilled, but at least we have a ‘torture porn’ film which is attempting some critique, which is making us question why we want to watch stuff like this – and while it’s not always my cup of tea a hell of a lot of people do like to watch stuff like this judging by the popularity of the Saw franchise, something that I darn well know is far more to do with the lengthy, gloating set pieces of blood and agony rather than the [surprisingly intricate if increasingly unbelievable] storyline.

Many of the scenes in the room that Mira is in are obviously intended to be from the point of view of various cameras in the room [something I wish had been taken further My Little Eye-style because it made that slasher especially effective if not that instalment of the Halloween franchise which did the same thing], and this means that sometimes we can’t see what’s actually happening. What’s taking place is clearly nasty, but we, the viewers, are frustrated because we actually want to see this nastiness and are not being allowed to. Now I don’t want to make any claims of great sophistication in this film, but it seems quite clear to me that Khvaleev and Khacaleeva have certainly thought greatly about what they wanted to do and what they wanted to say, and this makes me want to check out the other stuff that they’ve done. It’s certainly possible to think up a totally different scenario which would get across the basic beats of the story which wouldn’t involve a great deal of emphasis on a woman being tormented and brutalised, but isn’t it a mark of the film’s quality that it’s making me think of such things as I type? Even though they will have seen many entries that are far more graphic, ‘torture porn’ likers should get their kicks because the thing is so flippin’ intense. But Sleepless Beauty goes on to offer a bit more – something that’s probably evident seeing how much I’ve been able to write about it despite my early misgivings.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

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About Dr Lenera 1971 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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