Having first seen her feature film debut HOME, I'm not a fan of Ursula Meier's work, and this 1999 short SLEEPLESS confirms my belief that here is yet another lesser talent emerging on the currently impoverished European scene. Take your favorite time frame: '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, '60s, what an embarrassment of riches for film buffs compared to now.
Her avowed affection for Robert Bresson's L'ARGENT (see her lengthy, gushy interview on the DVD release of HOME) evidences Meier's minimalist bent, to which fellow Belgian Chantal Akerman is another obvious influence. Jettisoning conventional narrative for a strictly visual/ambient sound approach to cinema is risky for a newcomer, but she is succeeding in attracting top talent (Isabelle Huppert, Léa Seydoux) to her projects.
Both SLEEPLESS and the later HOME have incest as a subtext -never explicitly part of the narrative, but hanging over the action. This is the sole point of interest for me in Meier's work: she uses incest not in the conventional sense but in a novel rendering of its more colloquial, non-sexual meaning.
This overlong short (it runs about twice as long as necessary, approaching unearned featurette status) concerns two siblings reunited after years apart on the occasion of the death of their dad. Opening turns out to be the first of many tiresome flashbacks showing them romping (or competing) as kids out in an idyllic field, playing with daddy (who is cast to look more like great-granddad, for no apparent reason).
The boy is a soldier, who relates he's been posted next to Martinique, but is planning to leave the service and settle in Lyon(s). Carrying a theme she would return to (in spades) in HOME, the sister is still living in their family home. Meier does not like to express her ideas explicitly, but prefers an expressive approach through the physical acting and environment, and so her casting is important. The boy is handsome (sis even states this out loud at one point), while the sister is androgynous, not in the Jane Birkin mode but rather unattractive, made more-so by an unbecoming short hairstyle.
They sleep together, waiting for dad's funeral on the morrow. There's no sexual activity between them, but like the family that plays together in HOME, the viewer is quite naturally wondering. This repeated Meierian ploy annoyed me at first, but became evident as an extremely unsubtle way (in both films) of demonstrating a hermetic, harmful closeness that prevents the characters from being integrated properly with other people and the outside world. Perhaps all her films will use arrested development as their jumping off point.
They bicker and go through obvious aspects of unresolved sibling rivalry, which had about as much thematic impact for me as the ongoing Smothers Bros. comedy routine of "Mom always liked you best". Open ending is typical (almost identical with HOME's finish) of Meier's "dump it in the audience's lap" approach to her craft.
The acting is poor, not surprisingly Laurence Vielle as sis was nominated for an award at some no-name film festival -b.f.d. Meier is not interested in acting, she wants physicality (her casting of Huppert and praise for Sean Penn and Harvey Keitel shows where she's coming from).
In HOME she utilized an eclectic, often campily nostalgic music track, beginning disconcertingly with a throwback wailing saxophone recording of a theme I'd heard a million times (as library music) in Barry Mahon's 1960s softcore sex films, such as his Lucky Kargo epics. Here in SLEEPLESS we get an annoying recording about a jukebox in which the femme singer's namedropping of Johnny Hallyday is hilariously changed in the subtitles to "Elvis Presley" (yes, we poor dolts in the English-speaking world are assumed to never have heard of the iconic French singer, even though I've seen him in so many films dating back to the '60s). Much of the music is electric guitar noodling, approximating what an untalented admirer of John Scofield might produce.
While HOME was technically laudable, the sound recording in this neophyte work was obtrusively variable, notably in a lengthy road sequence where sis clops along noisily following her brother, until she takes her shoes off and squishes along behind him - distracting to the point of destroying whatever the director is trying to present on screen.
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