By James Slaymaker.

Demonstrating an astonishing level of artistic maturity, sensitivity, and command of cinematic form.”

In her feature debut, the entertaining-yet-slight road movie Take Me Somewhere Nice (2019), director Ena Sendijarević delved into her familial roots, depicting a young woman’s journey from the Netherlands to visit her estranged father in his native Bosnia. The film, informed by Sendijarević’s own experience as a dual national of Dutch and Bosnian descent, touched upon the themes of cultural identity, collective history, and the after-effects of political conflict with a light touch. Although not without merit, it often felt like it was gesturing towards these ideas rather than exploring them fully, and the film’s persistent tone of droll ironic distance prevented it from connecting on an emotional level. Fortunately, her follow-up, Sweet Dreams (2023), is a considerably more complex, confident, and ambitious work; a film which builds upon the promise of her debut while transcending its limitations.

While Take Me Somewhere Nice focused on Sendijarević’s Bosnian heritage, Sweet Dreams tackles the thorny subject of Netherland’s colonial past. Although a trace of offbeat comic sensibility which defined the director’s debut remains, the overarching tone here is one of melancholy, and its core themes are handled with a palpable sense of emotional and ethical weight. Set on a fictional island in the Dutch East Indies (the region now known as Indonesia) sometime ‘around 1900’, Sweet Dreams focuses on the owners of a sugar plantation and factory: the hedonistic, coarse Jan (Hans Dagelet) and his faux-genteel wife Agathe (Renee Soutendijk). The film’s opening act depicts the horrendous depth of the cruelties and indignities that Jan and Agathe inflict on the native population, as well as the false narratives of bringing ‘civilisation’ and ‘culture’ to the land which they use to rationalise their exploitation. Jan subjects the natives to random acts of humiliation, such as ordering a man to jump repeatedly on the spot for him as he chokes with laughter; the labourers at the plantation are fed leftover scraps while the Dutch gorge themselves on elaborate meals; and Jan treats the local woman as his sexual playthings. Cracks in the family’s power are beginning to emerge, however. The workers at the factory are engaged in a lengthy strike, regular uprisings across the region are increasingly forcing colonialists to relinquish control, and the revolutionary Reza (Muhammad Khan) is in the early stages of planning an rebellion. Sensing their authority waning, Jan and Agathe are consumed by paranoia. Tensions come to a head when Jan, after returning from the bedroom of his concubine Siti (Hayati Azis), suffers a fatal heart attack.

Left to deal with the consequences and desperate to reassert the family’s dominance over the territory, Agathe summons her son Cornelius (Florian Myjer) and his pregnant wife Josefien (Lisa Zweerman), two bourgeois loafers who enjoy a life of luxury in the Netherlands funded by the spoils of the plantation, to take over the business. Cornelius and Josefien lead their lives sheltered from the brutal reality of the trade which their luxurious lifestyle is built upon, and from the moment they set foot on the island, the proximity to the violence proves to be difficult for them to stomach. They swelter in the heat, complain of the stench, and are tormented by rashes and mosquito bites. The issue, from their perspective, is not they have any moral qualms with the exploitation of the people or the land, but that when they are on the island they are unable to turn a blind eye to it; they are quite happy to profit off mass-scale colonial violence, just so long as they don’t have to witness it directly. This fact, combined with the difficulty of controlling the increasingly insubordinate native population, convince the pair to sell the estate for a quick payout rather than continuing to run it themselves – much to Agathe’s chagrin.

Complicating their scheme, however, is the sudden revelation that, unbeknownst to Agathe, Jan impulsively altered his will to name Karel (Rio Kaj Den Haas), the young illegitimate son he had with Siti, the sole inheritor of his assets. What follows is a bold, audacious portrait of colonial power in decline, as all members of the family tear each other apart while fruitlessly scheming to wrestle away from a child so young that he is incapable of grasping the magnitude of the problem. As the fabric of her life rapidly disintegrates, Agathe’s commitment to carrying out hollow bourgeois rituals as a means of self-preservation appears increasingly absurd. There is an element of the farcical to the proceedings, and the film is at its weakest when it makes the occasional lapse into broad comedy (as in one sequence where Cornelius asserts his rightful ownership over Karel’s rocking horse, and is later seen riding on it pensively) but, for the most part, Sendijarević maintains a carefully modulated tone which emphasises how ludicrous the mindsets of European settlers were during the period, without trivialising the severity of the damage they inflicted.

Shot in 4:3 Academy ratio and primarily composed of static, deep-focus medium and wide shots, Sweet Dreams constructs a mannered, formally rigid aesthetic style which reflects the efforts of its central characters’ to uphold a veneer of ‘civility’ as an illusory bulwark against the rising tensions in the region. The hyper-real colour scheme and manicured interiors of the family’s estate communicates a sense of urgency on their part to conjure a European ideal which, in reality, was only ever an illusion, and the gaudy artifice of this man-made space is contrasted with the awe-inspiring natural beauty of the surrounding landscape, which the blinkered settlers can only perceive as a projection of their own biases and insecurities. As the film goes on, the formal style grows progressively destabilised, reflecting the destruction of the family unit by myriad forces both within and without. It is remarkable that Sendijarević manages to handle the descent in chaos with such a deft hand, culminating in a truly haunting final scene which raises the film’s emotional power to a new level. Only two films into her directorial career, Sendijarević is already demonstrating an astonishing level of artistic maturity, sensitivity, and command of cinematic form. Sweet Dreams is a testament to her preternatural talent, and it will be deeply exciting to see where she goes from here.

James Slaymaker is a journalist and filmmaker. His articles have been published in Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, MUBI Notebook, Little White Lies, McSweeney’s, Kinoscope, Film Comment, and others. His first book Time is Luck: The Life and Cinema of Michael Mann (Telos Publishing). His films have been featured on Fandor, MUBI, and The Film Stage, as well as screening at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival. He is currently a doctoral student at The University of Southampton, where his research focuses on the late work of Jean-Luc Godard, post-cinema, and collective memory.

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