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Sleepless Beauty [Video Review]

To Sleep, Perchance to Scream: Khvaleev Gets Re-creative with Mind Control

Pavel Khvaleev Sleepless Beauty ReviewMind control is the name of the game in Sleepless Beauty, the fourth feature from Russian director Pavel Khvaleev, reuniting with screenwriter Aleksandra Khvaleeva for the third time.

Serving as his own editor and cinematographer, Khvaleev once again proves to insinuate an ambitious myriad of fantastical, shifting palettes upon an otherwise simplistic core narrative, perhaps utilizing more cohesive parameters than, say, his 2015 breakout title III: The Ritual. Formulating a familiar odyssey of the insidious uses of sensory deprivation on the human mind and body, there are choice elements which leave a lasting impression despite some of the significant faults which hobble its tonal effectiveness.

Right after an assassination attempt on a high-profile ambassador goes awry, an oblivious young woman named Mila (Polina Davydova) is kidnapped after buying herself a Betta fish. She wakes up in a grungy, subterranean room outfitted with cameras. A cold, firm voice over a loudspeaker confirms she has been abducted by a mysterious organization called Recreation, where the only rule is no sleep is allowed. Throughout the next week and a half, Mila undergoes a daily regimen of torturous exercises before settling into nightmare VR experiences while tied down to a chair. All the while, she is being watched and commented upon.

Perhaps because Khvaleev’s output can’t justifiably be classified as “art-house” fare, the international release of Sleepless Beauty has been subjected to a terrible dub job, likely as way to extend a wider interest for audiences who don’t prefer to read subtitles over their genre films (not unlike the treatment of Alexandre Aja’s High Tension when it initially hit US theaters).

The end result is a bit devastating, especially as the quality of the dubbing is not just distracting but off-putting, which really takes away from the lead performance from Polina Davydova (who also starred in III: The Ritual). A continual dependance on sifting through the comments from an online chat room privy to Mila’s ordeal is also more of a hindrance than an illuminating device, tossing random idiotic statements from purveyors of torture porn with the ‘moderators’ of the chatroom who are explaining to us the scientific rationale for what’s happening.

Periodically, we see snippets of the VR footage Mila is subjected to, which first seem like the morbid weirdness of a Tim Burton animated film. But the showstopping sequence, which nearly makes the entirety of Sleepless Beauty worthy of admission, is a lengthy animated bit of nightmare fuel in which the sordid strangeness unfurls in Mila’s mind’s eye. First time animator Jakov Ivanusa is responsible, but it’s a powerful segment reminiscent of the sexual imagery of Dali mixed with visual reminiscent of early Jan Svankmajer.

Eventually, the reason for Mila’s torture is confirmed, as predicted, as a new brainwashing method to breed intimate assassins—but the film also leaves us with the question of a strenuous experience which can’t quite answer all the questions it generates (as in, how to explain kidnapping someone for ten+ days, or why allow perverts from the dark web to see what’s happening and potentially become whistleblowers). Films like Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020), which utilizes technological advancements for the same end, or the classic The Manchurian Candidate (1962), present more persuasive scenarios. One wishes Sleepless Beauty had been allowed a decent subtitling rather than this hack job dubbing as one gets the sense we’re missing out on some grotesque, underlying humor—as one commentator points out as a witness to Mila’s experience, “this is the content we deserve.”

★★½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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