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Sleep (2020)
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by Jay Seaver

"What scares us is often hereditary."
4 stars

SCREENING AT THE 2020 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The trick that the makers of "Sleep" pull off isn't necessarily rare, but it leads to disaster often enough that you have to admire how well they manage it. It's a thriller that is so exceptionally grounded at its center that one can easily discount just exactly how almost everything else about it is. It's a trip but not so random that filmmaker Michael Venus ever actually loses track of what made the audience get invested in the first place.

That would be the mother/daughter pair of Marlene (Sandra Hüller) and Mona (Gro Swantje Kohlhof); the former is a flight attendant who has a few health issues, mostly a sleep disorder that sometimes interrupts her breathing, manifesting as frightening nightmares, although Mona is starting to realize Marlene might have mental health issues as well, especially when they come to a head as a particularly bad dream sends her into a breakdown at a Stainbach hotel, in a fugue state when Mona arrives. She winds up staying in the same hotel, run by Otto Fahrmann (August Schmölzer) and his wife Loretze (Marion Kracht), trying to solve the mystery of what sent her mother over the edge, or why the hotel seems to match drawings Marlene made before she left. Soon she's having nightmares of her own, which is understandable under the circumstances, even without the doctor's warning that Marlene's condition may be hereditary, unless there's more to it.

Mona is an intelligent, rational young woman who winds up dropped into some very irrational situations, the sort of character who could easily be swallowed alive by a movie like this, with filmmakers often working overtime to make her seem cool or quippy, but that's not the way Venus and star Gro Swantje Kohlaf go. Kohlof has room to seem puzzled by the mystery and unnerved as she finds signs of her mother's issues in her own head, and she does so without ever seeming to lose the initiative. One gets the sense that because Mona has been dealing with Marlene's issues her entire life, she has a handle on how to navigate strange situations and maintain some control even if she's being buffeted. It's fun to watch her react uncertainly to this town's eccentrics, shiver at the things that make her question her own sanity, and make seemingly aggressive leaps out of character when that's the only reaction to everything going crazy.

And things get crazy quite quickly; it's clear that Marlene is not well from the first scene, even if she's apparently functional, and it builds from there. Venus and screenwriter Thomas Friedrich prove to be excellent at establishing a potentially unnerving situation and then finding a way to flip it around without discounting what came before, and it keeps everything unstable enough for the audience to never know what's going to come next even while things are moving forward with purpose rather than in random fashion (although, toward the end, there is a fair amount happening on all sides as seemingly out-of-control compulsions). It goes down easier in some ways because there's often something genuinely friendly covering the insanity that lets it merge with other sorts of eccentricity, often not revealing where actual danger lies until too late. Venus and company also blur the lines between reality, dreams, and Mona figuring things out or possibly hallucinating, making the occasional coming-out-of-a-dream fake-out feel like part of the story rather than just cheap tricks, and getting mileage out of how dreams can often be a bit more vivid than life.

There's a nice cast surrounding Kohalf, too, with Sandra Hüller doing crucial work in establishing Marlene in relatively little time with a lot of emphasis on her issues but still making sure she seems functional, if fragile, and is more to her daughter than just a burden. August Schmölzer and Marion Kracht become more entertaining as the innkeepers as the movie goes on and things get darker, while Max Hubacher and Martina Schöne-Radunskiput enough into seemingly minor characters that they always feel relevant. Agata Buzek pulls something really nifty off as someone who never doesn't get a proper introduction until very late in the game but is at the center of everything near the finale in big, bring-the-house down manner.

That finale is just messy enough that some may find it frustrating rather than thrilling, but mess is kind of appropriate for this sort of thriller. In fact, more could probably benefit from being this sort of messy; all too often the inevitable move to something maybe a little closer to definitively supernatural will leave the real-world fears that drive the story behind. Venus never loses track of how Mona is naturally afraid that she has the same thing as her mother, even if there is eventually a lot of something else going on.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33601&reviewer=371
originally posted: 08/16/20 05:05:39
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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