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Karan Kandhari Sister Midnight Review

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Sister Midnight | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

Sister Midnight | 2024 Cannes Film Festival Review

Crazy On You: Kandhari’s Strange Fantasy of Madness

It’s been nearly twenty years since director Karan Kandhari’s 2005 debut Bye Bye Miss Goodnight (since then working on short films and music videos, including Franz Ferdinand’s “Stand on the Horizon”). He’s back with the pseudo sinister Sister Midnight, a film which partially castigates the continued tradition of arranged marriage while also moonlighting as a portrait of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. A plum role for celebrated Indian actress Radhika Apte finds the performer digging into this characterization with relish, however, the jarring tonal shifts tend to undermine her prowess.

Uma (Apte) wakes up in cramped, squalid quarters in Mumbai, a living space large enough for a bed and not much else. Dank and dreary, the lone window above the bed, often covered to suppress the bustling noise from the street outside, barely illuminates her confines. It appears Uma has just entered into an arranged marriage with a man (Ashok Pathak) she once knew briefly when they were children, who returns hours later hung over from a night of drinking to ‘celebrate’ with his friends. Uma is nonplussed, dismayed at having to wake up in a strange place she barely knows without any money. As her husband goes to work, Uma begins to explore the overwhelming streets around her home, stealing potted plants to bring some life into their unpleasant abode.

But Uma is also undergoing a kind of strange transformation, beginning with a nausea that will not abate. Unable to keep down any food, she visits several doctors who, unable to really explain what’s going on, advise familiar home remedies. In an effort to build some semblance of independence, she takes public transportation to the very end of the line and finds work as a cleaner, responsible for dragging her own mop and bucket back and forth every night, which she keeps secret from her spouse. Uma attracts the attention of what appears to be a group of friendly sex workers in her nightly journeys, who demand to know her skin whitening routine since they find her inordinately light skinned.

Things get really strange when Uma begins to see birds flying out from under her bed, presented as stop motion visualizations only she can see. More animals begin to appear in her imaginary menagerie, with bleating goats popping up outside, a coterie she regularly tries to gather up and throw out of the house or abandon in the woods. Meanwhile, she begins to warm to her husband, and after a bonding moment where they sullenly go to the beach with one of his co-workers and his wife, it would appear they finally consummate the marriage. But when they awaken, her partner is suddenly unresponsive and Uma struggles to deal with the aftermath.

Sister Midnight is, on one hand, utterly unpredictable in its presentation of a woman suffering from some sort of psychotic break instigated by living conditions and expectations which are untenable, to say the least. But as everything spins out of control, Kandhari’s narrative begins to take broad leaps and bounds, morphing from domestic horror film into a feverish fantasy comedy, requiring Apte to navigate conveying internalized discord into the kind of over-the-top madness suggesting she’s becoming a mythological folk hero. Kandhari outfits Uma with a handful of classic American rock tunes from various eras, such as The Weight and Buddy Holly, furthering this notion of a folkloric world building.

The slow build of anxiety of an expected implosion suddenly becomes a zany, schizophrenic road movie. To its credit, Sister Midnight rides a hard line of ambiguity, considering it’s unclear if we’re supposed to feel at all hopeful for Uma in her mad flight to a destination unknown. But it appears whatever she’s experiencing will follow her. If only Kandhari had left us motivated enough to want to follow along, then Uma’s ride to the credits might have felt triumphant…or at least thought provoking.

Reviewed on May 19th at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival – Directors’ Fortnight. 110 Mins.

★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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