Liber Nauseous: Somnambulism in Cinema

(Manuel Lopez San Martin/Twitter)

“In the deepest reach of the stream shines a red sun, radiating through the dark water. There I see – and a terror seizes me – small serpents on the dark rock walls, striving toward the depths, where the sun shines. A thousand serpents crowd around, veiling the sun. Deep night falls. A red stream of blood, thick red blood springs up, surging for a long time, then ebbing. I am seized by fear. What did I see?”
Carl Jung, The Red Book: Liber Novus

Remember that subaquatic ‘eye of fire’ boiling like a cauldron in the Gulf of Mexico a few weeks ago? Another chapter in our woeful history of blowouts, releasing millions of gallons of crude oil into the open sea, presenting us with mortifying images of dead and near-dead oil-slicked marine creatures gasping for air. There is, of course, no shortage of things to do about it. Personally, I have done only a few things—i.e., the ones that required the least amount of effort. I am, for the most part, entrenched in a baking fifth-floor walk-up, indulging my latest obsession with sleepwalkers, for these specters appear to embody an all-too-familiar yet peculiar amalgam of compliance and alarm. Sleepwalking is a well-worn cliché of our blind careening through the relentless disasters of our planet’s broken, scorched fate. Transfixed by forces on the cusp of consciousness, these not quite awake, not quite asleep walkers typify junctures between affect and abstraction. By extension, post-Jungian scholar James Hillman wrote about the particular forms of wisdom that emerge through the night: “You learn that your emotions are not quite yours, that they are not so much to be controlled as to be reckoned with.” 

Abel Ferrara’s latest offering, Siberia (2020), is a self-conscious dreamlike odyssey, riffing off of Jung’s visionary Liber Novus (written between 1915 and about 1930, and astonishingly withheld from public access until 2009). Ferrara revealed to devoted fans at Cinema Village that visions from The Red Book were snuck into his sketchy script because, according to him, no producer in their right mind would finance a straight-up adaptation. Fair enough. As in most of his recent features, there’s an out-on-a-limb, end-of-the-world quality informing the action—a sense of risk coexisting with a sense of flailing. Ferrara’s long-time collaborator Willem Dafoe plays Clint, who is subjected early on to a vicious bear attack, leading us to ponder for the rest of the film whether we are experiencing his bitter and exorcistic afterlife, or whether he fell asleep on a couch with a giant hardback of The Red Book on his chest and is vicariously walking his way through it.

Siberia, directed by Abel Ferrara, 2020

A pivotal scene presents an iteration of Jung’s subterranean sun, shining in Hades, with Clint moving through a glowing red cave that seems to double as an insane asylum. A few silhouetted figures in the background shout and murmur for mercy. It is here that Clint confronts a raspier, paternal version of himself, played also by Dafoe:

“I believe my soul is within me,” Clint says. 

“Wrong again, brother,” replies the alter ego / dead father. “Your soul is outside of you and you must claim it.” 

Ferrara then teleports us to the surface of our blazing sun spitting solar flares, before plummeting us back down to bleak Earth. Clint has a brief exchange with the estranged mother of his child about her therapist, and her apparent disdain for Clint doesn’t preclude them from having sex, which gets stranger still when Ferrera cuts inexplicably between interchangeable women. Otherwise, Clint is in the company of huskies, sledding across Siberian snowscapes, serving vodka to aloof Inuit and Russian bar customers, dancing around a maypole among rollicking children and, just as abruptly, witnessing a surgical procedure. Scenes smash cut and flow into one another, arbitrarily discontinuous. High-minded and tawdry, the cumulative effect of Siberia leaves you wishing for a form more compellingly precise.

While Ferrara relies almost entirely on a grab-bag of pseudo-mystical jargon, Bill Bennett’s Kiss or Kill, a pulpy thriller from 1997, kicks off with a cryptic verse from Dylan Thomas’s “Our Eunuch Dreams”:

“They dance between their arclamps and our skull,
Impose their shots, showing the nights away;
We watch the show of shadows kiss or kill
Flavoured of celluloid give love the lie.”

Beyond this, explicit literary allusions vanish, as the film follows fugitive lovers Nikki (an effervescent Frances O’Connor) and Al (Matt Day) who are pursued across the Australian outback by two laconic cops and a renowned ex-footballer (also a pedophile) named Zipper Doyle. The story jolts into gear after Nikki invites herself into the hotel room of a married businessman and narrowly evades rape as he passes out on top of her. When Al, her pretty-boy partner in petty crime, arrives on the scene to clear fingerprints and collect her, it becomes apparent that over-effective sedatives have permanently immobilized their mark. Knowing that the accident will come across as a homicide, they skip town, taking off into the vast open desert toward Western Australia.

Things would be dandier between Nikki and Al if she wasn’t straying from their motel room hideouts at night in a trance state. Her sleepwalks align themselves perhaps all too neatly within the Freudian formula of a causal primary trauma. Nikki’s fixed idea is that men are “shitbags”, one of whom brutally immolated Nikki’s mother before her eyes when she was a child. Yet her boyfriend is a decent guy, despite his delinquent upbringing and fits of short-fused violence, and their intimacy is charged with playful energy and sexual satisfaction.

Kiss or Kill, directed by Bill Bennett, 1997

As mysterious murders proliferate along their journey, the lovers are led to suspect one another, with the most defined possibility being that Nikki is unconsciously slaughtering victims in her sleep, catching them unaware in their beds and slitting their throats—a roadside spin on Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). A premonition of Nikki’s nocturnal walks is provided by an eccentric motel owner (Max Cullen), who launches into a garbled mystical interpretation of the desert as a pizza with an underlayer of tunnels and caves, describing how his long-lost “Elsie” went for a walk, became hypnotized by lights, and vanished. At night, Nikki’s shadow self embodies Elsie: she is a lost little girl, wandering barefoot in a crepuscular netherworld, looking like she stepped into a luminous portrait by photographer Bill Henson.

The sense of a brooding, hidden underworld extends into daylight and open land when the search for a hideaway off the grid leads to a nuclear testing site contaminated with radiation—another threshold into another heart of darkness. An underlying idea in this film is that the world has been poisoned, and love is a kind of lèse-majesté between two wounded people. As the story unfolds, with the fugitives intercepting and evading benign and malevolent strangers, love is presented as a refuge and a last stand, but never a certainty or a complete submission to the other. Rather, love must accommodate degrees of deception and risk. Proven innocent at the film’s end, after surviving the story’s worst dangers, Nikki tells us in voiceover that she will never reveal all her secrets to Al, and Bennett circles back to a note of ambiguity, showing his haunted heroine turning upon Al with a kitchen knife—a destabilizing, macabre prank. 

Sleepwalk, directed by Sara Driver, 1986

Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk (1986) shares with Kiss or Kill choice conceits of neo-noir: ineffective detectives, mutilated victims, night lurkers, deep shadows, and light slicing through blinds. Among Driver’s avowed influences is Jacques Tourneur’s classic I Walked with a Zombie (1943), in which a valiant nurse notes that her brain-damaged, sleepwalking patient might as well be dead, doomed as she is to an existence “without joy or meaning.” An early scene in Sleepwalk depicts the repetitive drudgery of office work, each employee tasked with a counterproductive, meaningless, joyless, bullshit job. Steve Buscemi plays a worker rearranging film negatives with hyperbolic curiosity, carelessly touching them with his fingers, shifting them around a table with no clear objective. The boss doubles as a receptionist, answering multiple phones ringing at the front desk, constantly deflecting callers. 

Driver’s protagonist Nicole (Suzanne Fletcher) is a demure and reticent compositor who has a translation project foisted upon her by two menacing yet caricaturish villains Dr. Gou (Stephen Chen) and his Black lackey Barrington (Tony “Candyman” Todd), presented as overt parodies of Orientalism, rather than actual thugs or threats. Overworked and lethargic, Nicole gradually realizes that the Chinese manuscript in her custody is manifesting off the page. Receiving fantastical visions and portents with non-plussed passivity, she becomes an enabler of the fateful folktale she is translating. She traverses the fluorescent streets of New York’s grungy Chinatown, arriving home to discover that her roommate Isabelle (Ann Magnuson of 1980s psychedelic rock band Bongwater fame) is abruptly losing the curly locks of her flaming red hair, and Nicole’s young son Jimmy (Dexter Lee) wakes up from a nightmare. 

The presence of the supernatural in Sleepwalk is ominous but not monstrous—inferred through stray dogs, orphan-like children, cacophonous voices, and the mechanics of an office elevator that seems to follow its own imperatives. Paradoxically, Nicole is a somnambulist and an insomniac. And while Bennett’s film features no music, gathering tension and momentum from explicit action and suspense, Driver layers her narrative with a sinister score by Phil Kline, in which drones and percussive knocks suggest that Nicole’s psychogeographical unease is unrelenting. 

Sleepwalk’s climax presents a sequence of modestly surreal spectacles and stylized vignettes. One kinky tableau involves a neon red room with Dr. Gou ceremoniously—or even sacrificially—lying on a bed of almonds as a snake slithers into the room; another shows a young girl playing with a pile of red stilettos jumbled on the floor. In Driver’s world, reaching for a cosmic and karmic interplay between what is real and what is imagined, phantasms correspond to a reality that is metaphysically bottomless. Given its vividness and its powerful sense of a lost New York, the film reminded me of the delirious intuitions darting through Anne Boyer’s essay, Erotology:

“This is like sometimes how you are in the city you now live in or one you have visited a lot. Then sometimes you feel like you are in all cities at once, or that all cities are basically just one, or that it is that you are driving or walking in a city that makes each city the same like the dream city you have the one-person in. So, too, your longing has both an enlarging and flattening effect: now that you have been alive for some time, it’s clear all this longing is a kind of cosmopolitanism. This is the longing that is not in [an] actual relationship but outside of it.”

Contrary to the live-wire chemistry that fires up Kiss or Kill, the world of Sleepwalk seems deprived of romance, even as Driver provides her heroine with an urban framework that is enchanted, fanciful, romantic. Nicole, working overtime, is exhausted by her dual jobs and, more pointedly, by capitalism, which imitates the structure of desire: a feedback loop promising satisfaction that is forever dangling and unattainable. It is only when Nicole’s son goes missing (accidentally abducted during a slapdash carjacking) that Nicole is thrust into action, but her search for the lost boy is thwarted and unresolved, giving the movie the suspended, not-quite-coherent feeling of a dream. The film’s final scene deposits Nicole and Jimmy beside the East River, still separated but in close proximity, two survivors almost reunited—an imminently happy ending brought to a halt by Nicole’s collapse into deep, delayed slumber.

Bennett’s Kiss or Kill is propulsive, making regular use of jump cuts from its first scenes forward. By contrast, Driver’s Sleepwalk glides along, for all its oneiric oddness, in a relatively leisurely, fluid pace and rhythm. Relative to these somnambulistic strolls, it can be said that Tsai Ming-liang’s Walker series pushes the tender tropes of sleepwalking to a new limit. The series—nine installments to date—is practically plotless and dialogue-less, requiring patience and openness from the viewer, with Tsai planting his camera and lingering with stark assurance before cutting to the next single-shot vignette.

Journey to the West, directed by Tsai Ming-liang, 2014

As Annabel Brady-Brown asserts in a thoroughgoing essay on Mubi, Tsai is interested in slowness as an act of rebellion against the speed of urban life. It may be a stretch to call any type of walking “rebellious”; however, Tsai’s Walker protagonists interrupt the workaday routines of surrounding city-dwellers by virtue of subtle inconvenience. Tsai’s ethos is informed by his admiration for the seventh-century monk Chen Xuanzang’s pilgrimage along the Silk Road to India, a journey spanning seventeen years. Tsai’s long-term collaborator Lee Kang-sheng takes on the role of the monk. Dressed in scarlet red robes, his head shaved, Lee inches barefoot across urban spaces, practicing a form of Buddhist walking meditation that demands superhuman focus. Observing Lee, at times, from a distance through crowds, Tsai and his cinematographers create a Where’s Waldo effect as the viewer is caught searching for the red-robed figure in motion within the frame. In his earlier dramatic features, as well as in these later, less classifiable works, a disarming humor charges Tsai’s films with warmth and wit. His static, staring camera outwaits our over-conditioned eyes, allowing vehicles, architecture, and reflections to obstruct or confuse the view.

Set in Marseille, Journey to the West (2014) occurs midway into the series and may stand as a kind of concise crescendo in Tsai’s achievement. It opens with an extreme close-up, not of Lee but of Denis Lavant—his face leadenly resting on a flat surface, his pupils so dilated they take over his glassy eyeballs, his labored breathing filling the soundtrack. The image is daringly inert, even boring, signaling a lucid dream state.

One of the more extended scenes shows the monk descending a cavernous length of metro stairs, backlit and ethereal in the reflective red glow of his robes. Later, Lee is accompanied by Lavant, who lags behind him, wearing contemporary clothes. A secular acolyte and doppelgänger, his movements are eerily synchronized. As the pair uncannily proceed along a bustling street, passing through a glorious shaft of light, café patrons and other pedestrians fail to notice or idly stare, oblivious or bemused, and we’re called upon to clock our own habits of movement and observation in a world that invites commotion, speed, and thoughtlessness. (We are also witnessing a physical feat executed by two highly skilled performers, powered by disciplined concentration.) Detached from common, commercial motives or needs, Tsai’s hyper-patient pedestrian is a transient icon of fortitude, seeming as self-contained, purposeless, and pure as a floating cloud.

Pedro Costa’s Horse Money (2014) is a darker fever dream of a film, featuring a beleaguered protagonist who moves through an institutional maze resembling an underbelly, often framed by tunnel walls as glossy and moist as an esophagus. Costa locates his films in a world that is aggressively real: the self-enclosed Fontainhas on the outskirts of Lisbon, Costa’s slum setting for Vonda’s Room, Colossal Youth, and his last decade’s worth of work. Horse Money is, in part, indebted to Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, echoing its inky shadows and silhouettes while layering in slabs of rich color, mostly a lush red. The mysterious story follows the single-named Ventura, an elderly immigrant from Cape Verde, a retired construction worker residing in a medical facility since his health has been compromised. His trembling hands are the result of a nerve disorder likely brought on by a workplace accident. 

Horse Money, directed by Pedro Costa, 2014

As Jonathan Romney succinctly stated in Film Comment:Horse Money is an inspired reminder that politically rooted cinema needn’t just inhabit the realm of the strictly real; it can have an unconscious too, a dream dimension haunted by ghosts.” Like a phantom revisiting his life, and like a prisoner convicted for crimes he can no longer remember (his striped pajamas invite this analogy), Ventura drifts down empty corridors, arriving at the abandoned factory where he labored for years. His fellow immigrant Tito Furtado descends a rusting staircase, wearing a ruffled scarlet shirt, all dressed up for a grand exit down another corridor. These melancholy, painterly shots—masterful exercises in what impatient filmgoers might dismiss as “shoe leather”—alternate with Ventura interfacing with a social worker, a doctor, or concerned friends visiting him in the bed he has landed in after a life of relentless labor. 

Costa has been here before. He displays great compassion for his actors, who play dispossessed “characters” re-enacting their lives for the camera, often in intense shadow-framed close-ups; but almost all of Horse Money’s scenes are nocturnal and at least semi-fantastical. The film’s darkness is rich, velvety, almost a character in itself, and Ventura, moving within it, is definably zombielike in his shuffling walk and ominous silences. Yet his glistening eyes attest to a deep humanity, apparent when, very occasionally, he breaks into song or flashes a disarming smile. (Costa’s universe exists in sharp contrast to Driver or Tsai’s quiet, soulful comedy, or Bennett’s mordant, capering humor; Horse Money could hardly be more self-serious.) 

Ventura and his comrades seem to be in rehearsal for their own ghosthood. Vitalina Varela, the eponymous heroine in Costa’s similarly tranced Vitalina Varela (2019) is presented to us with inverted glamour, her face lit with the dramatic majesty of a Caravaggio painting. Towards the film’s last third, jabs of outright surrealism place the action adjacent to Sara Driver’s distant universe. One scene, providing the tour of the abandoned factory, gives Furtado access to defunct, unplugged rotary phones, which he talks into with intense deadpan futility. Another extended scene places Ventura in a freight elevator with a Golem-like iron-skinned soldier — a motionless embodiment of the April 25, 1974 Portuguese Revolution. Ventura slumps in the confined and sterile space, his eyes radiating despair. Costa denies him coddling or comfort. In another late scene, our hero is stripped to his underwear, wandering night streets, facing armored vehicles and military men—an evocation of a parallel protest in Tiananmen Square, perhaps, and a curiously heavy-handed and offkey action scene for a director with a penchant for indirection and restraint. 

Costa brings Ventura, and the film, to a gentle finale, with the somnambulistic patient discharged in broad daylight, standing under a grand archway framed with yellow greenery, bidding farewell to a nurse in a beaming white overcoat. The last shot of the film is a close-up of a set of knives from a shop display, reflected onto Ventura’s static feet. This image suggestively circles back to an early scene in Colossal Youth, when a knife-wielding woman talks from the recesses of a blasted window casement; Ventura later claims she stabbed him. “He had knives, women, accidents. An adventurous life,” Costa commented in a Q&A at London’s ICA (hosted by Laura Mulvey). Costa went on to quote Jacques Rivette’s provocative claim that “the cinema is necessarily fascination and rape.” In the full quote (from an interview published in 1992), Rivette clarifies: “That is how it [cinema] acts on people; it is something unclear, something one sees shrouded in darkness, where you project the same things as in dreams.”  

We could rephrase this to argue that films are collective dreams signifying fascination and betrayal, but somnambulism in cinema is a special breed for its rupture of mind and body and its exposure of the mechanisms of escapism—offering occasional glints of consolation or even, exaltation. There are myriad other points of reference, such as Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), in which school girls are psychically and physically absorbed into a spooky rock, or Mati Diop’s Atlantique (2019), where young women become djinns of drowned young men returning from the sea with unfinished business, or Mike Birbiglia’s Sleepwalk With Me (2012), where a minor comedian takes a major leap from a window. I watched Paula Hernández’s Los Sonámbulos (2019) last night and felt a little gypped given there were only two all-too-brief and incidental sleepwalk scenes, with a haggard Erica Rivas running around screaming at her husband while trying to coax her surly daughter away from her slimebag cousin. 

We are coming almost full mandala. Jung’s “totality of the self” is continuously shape-shifting in a world notably short on attention, kindness, and good faith. A somnambulist’s journey is always incomplete, and is tantamount to Hillman’s notion of “the personal that cannot be resolved personally.” Meanwhile, waking up bleary-eyed, instead of writing my dreams down like a good Jungian, I grind some coffee beans and open my newsfeed, skimming the headlines of our collective dread: Florida’s toxic algal bloom triggered by a fertilizer plant spill, Germany’s worst floods in 200 years, 70 large wildfires burning in US west, dozens of anti-trans wingnuts arrested outside a spa in Los Angeles, protests in Cuba, heatstruck celebs in Cannes, Bolsonaro “fine” after a 10-day hiccup attack.

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