Monomania Films’ Sleepless Beauty is just that kind of ‘anything.’
The flick’s adverts caught my interest largely because it looked as if these storytellers were truly fascinated with the psychology of terror and perhaps even what it could drive the average person to do. There wasn’t any hint, per se, of a plot greater than the experimentation of not only keeping a subject awake but also slowly driving one crazy (well, maybe just a wee clue); and it looked like this was going to be some grand journey into the mind of madness.
In short, it kinda is, though the agenda behind all of it plays a significant part for those watching closely. But instead of truly taking me on a trip into the darkest of places, the film ended up being little more than one meal of true torment with an unsatisfying side dish of The Manchurian Candidate.
From IMDB.com: “A young woman, Mila, is kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as Recreation. Her unknown abductors talk to her though a loudspeaker and set strict rules: she cannot sleep and has to fulfill bizarre and violent tasks if she hopes to stay alive. At first, it looks like someone's sick idea of entertainment but as the demands become more intense, Mila begins to realize that she is losing control of her own mind and may be a pawn in a twisted and deadly psychological experiment.”
Sleepless Beauty has an interesting set-up: a Russian politician giving brief remarks at a press conference is nearly assassinated. Almost immediately after that, the audience is plunged into the life of a virtual nobody, Mila (played by Polina Davydova), whose life of nothingness is punctuated by simple things like talking on her cell phone to her nobody parents or even buying a goldfish. Once she’s suddenly whisked away and awakened in a filthy chamber, it looks as if her life may actually somehow have greater meaning, though these layers are never quite invested enough by the storytellers here. There are hints that her abductors may be grooming her for a greater task … but, alas, come the big finish it wasn’t quite meant to be as the final reveal ends up being little more than a set-up for perhaps another feature, one that could pick up almost exactly where this one leaves off.
How do you like your ‘Saw’? (FYI: that’s a reference to the popular Saw film series, a franchise that essentially cornered the market on torture during its time in cinemas.)
In fairness to Sleepless Beauty, there was a greater agenda here, as all signs point to a slowly unfolding conspiracy. But the intrigue ends up being entirely obscured by what emerges instead as a largely well-made torture flick, and I suspect many viewers might find themselves wondering why director Pavel Khvaleev felt it necessary to compose his story with so many long sequences. For the uniformed, long sequences tend to deflate tension, allowing the audience to drink in more of the scene and the associated performance. As the lady in distress, the comely Davydova gets great mileage out of the gruesome treatment she suffers (her increasing exhaustion and disassociation is a solid performance), there’s just not enough meat on the other bones of this meal to make it one worth more than a single viewing.
Torture can be used (from what I’ve read) to brainwash the properly selected candidate, but we’re not provided any indication as to why the nefarious evildoers at Recreation chose Mila. Was it because she was a nobody with a nobody’s life? If they genuinely believed they could accomplish this with anyone, then why Mila first? Why not go right for the intended victim? (That statement will make sense if you’ve seen the film – or once you’ve seen it – as I’m holding back to keep from spoiling arguably the film’s biggest secret.) Since mentally reshaping a participant more likely varies from subject-to-subject (based on a wealth of pertinent factors), their theory here seems proven only by convenience for a single script.
Plotholes aside, Sleepless Beauty certainly revels in its own excesses, dishing out one punishment more strenuous than the last. To help push the narrative along, director Khvaleev utilizes two other techniques – there’s an undercurrent involving some kinda/sorta social media access (it curiously implies that folks watching a web video feed go beyond the membership of Recreation) and some (ahem) mind-control animation that looks like a mash-up of Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam and Alien’s H.R. Giger. One is understandably flippant – so much so I question including it in the film at all – and the other is just downright bizarre. Clearly, Khvaleev was trying to demonstrate something about the voices one hears in one’s head all being whittled down to the single crazy one (I think); I’m just not convinced the best choices were made at each step of the way. Some of it – while attractive – could’ve been sacrificed while leaving in only the truly relevant stuff.
However, Khvaleev’s bloated editing helped get the motion picture all the way to about the 85-minute mark. While trimming the excess might’ve made for a tighter picture, it may’ve also impeded getting the flick beyond 60 minutes, a running time way too short for a silver screen experience and more akin to a telefilm.
If all you wanted today was some respectable torture porn, then you are rewarded with this release. My disappointment with it relate almost entirely to its flawed construction and the promise of something more. As it is, there are scenes suggesting the involvement of others (a neighbor, the landlord, etc.), but those are left dangling with no real commentary or conclusion, almost as if included to distract a viewer trying to guess at a broader conspiracy when none truly existed. Torture for torture’s sake isn’t all that interesting … but I suppose it’s bloody good business if you can get it.
Alas, there’s no magic kiss in the ending to this Sleepless Beauty (2020) because if you’ve seen one Saw you’ve seen them all. Director Pavel Khvaleev’s visualization of Aleksandra Khvaleeva’s script is only occasionally interesting (beyond the obvious torture sequences), and the audience is treated to one vague and underdeveloped character after another in this evilly elegant charade. What’s really sad is that Polina Davydova’s performance is good enough to deserve some mild recognition, but there’s so little legitimate character exploration that the viewer never grows to like her: empathy and sympathy will only take one so far, and the lack of a connection kinda/sorta dooms this one as a one-trick pony pretty early on in its reveal.
The bottom line? Well, if you like this sort of thing – Saw with more of a social media imprint – then you’ll probably enjoy it. The casual viewer will likely be wondering where it’s all going. The committed viewer is likely best just committed.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Epic Pictures provided me with a Blu-ray of Sleepless Beauty by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.