“Is this like Saw irl?”, someone asks some way into Pavel Khvaleev‘s Sleepless Beauty (Ya ne plyu).
At this stage the film’s viewers too will be recognising what they are watching as conforming to the conventions of ‘torture porn’ – that horror subgenre of the mid-Noughties, kick-started by James Wan’s Saw (2004) and Eli Roth’s Hostel (2005), whose characters were shown facing the same sort of extraordinary rendition and psychological and physical torments that had been exposed in the daily news as state-endorsed standard operating procedure at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan, and the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp in Cuba. For here too a young woman, Mila (Polina Davydova), has been abducted from her apartment and locked in a tiled basement, where, as part of a programme that calls itself ‘Recreation’, she is deprived of all sleep over the course of several days and subjected to a brutalising regime of brain-washing treatments designed to break her psyche down and reduce her to a quivering, hallucinating, highly suggestible wreck. And from the start, the aims of this dehumanising assault are shown to be darkly political in nature: Mila’s ordeal is expressly, if obscurely, connected with a plot to assassinate a liberal-leaning Russian ambassador to Belgium. So yes, Sleepless Beauty is, broadly, one of those films, where the human mind and body is made the unwilling arena of someone else’s sadistic game, all within a broader geopolitical context.
If torture porn is a genre that always punishes viewers with the most perverse sort of spectatorship, pinning us to our seats and inserting all manner of depravity into our eyeballs, then Sleepless Beauty is assiduous in interrogating various degrees of watching. Everything that happens to Mila is caught on (intradiegetic) cameras and exhibited live to two different kinds of online viewer. The first, the Administrators, exchange cryptic texts about the progress of their experiment, while many others (including the person who asks the question that opened this review) are a random collection of online thrill-seekers and incels unsure exactly what they are watching, but happy to keep at least half an eye on the screen. Presented in text form alongside the CCTV feed, the constant, obnoxiously misogynistic and cruel commentary of this live-streaming chorus bleakly questions, modulates and refracts our own hopes and fears and desires in watching much the same thing that they are watching. Other films like Marc Evans’ My Little Eye (2002), Andrès Goteira’s Dhogs (2017), Søren Juul Petersen’s Finale (aka The Ringmaster, 2018), and the end of Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) have all featured similar in-story virtual audiences that reflect the film’s external audience through a glass darkly – but it is an effect which remains potent, putting us in our place as viewers.
Mila is herself a viewer. Every day, from 9pm to 8am, she is strapped into a chair with a headset for ‘Virtual Reality Immersion’. “Show us what she’s seeing!”, begs one online observer, watching Mila watching (and writhing), while another declares: “I’m sooo curious about what she’s watching.” These comments of course direct our own expectations, and Khvaleev will eventually ‘treat’ us to one brief and one slightly longer (albeit not 11 hours long) sample of what Mila – unlike us – is being forced to see: an animated barrage of grotesquely abject psychosexual imagery that is the maddening stuff of pure nightmare. Mila’s prolonged exposure, in a hypersensitive state, to these images will alter, perhaps permanently, her brain, changing who she is. Here Mila is a pawn and a guinea pig, objectified, instrumentalised and manipulated to serve a plot she never understands, cast aside once her usefulness has been fulfilled, and last seen staring blankly at a part of her own story being broadcast on a television screen. If this makes her sound like Lucie Jurin, the girl in Martyrs (2008) who grows up broken, haunted and near catatonic after surviving and escaping a routine of torturous abuse, then one image here of Mila running, bloody and distraught, through an abandoned industrial complex, directly evokes Pascal Laugier’s harrowing film.
The overall impact of Sleepless Beauty is multi-faceted. On the one hand, it updates John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) to the digital age, while on the other, it makes its characters unwitting victims of the images that they consume, transmitting a mixed message about its own discomfiting materials and the deleterious effect that they might be having on us. Unnerving and wrenching, it is, with its themes of corporeal takeovers and proxy assassinations, an interesting complement to Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020). One might – indeed, one should – question a film that devotes much of its running time to showing a woman being degraded, terrorised and destroyed, but Sleepless Beauty never stops raising precisely these questions about the different forms and contexts of its own reception, while revealing the way in which we are all susceptible to the malign influence of outside forces, whether they be online content or Machiavellian power plays. The results are deeply dispiriting.
strap: Pavel Khvaleev’s Sleepless Beauty is a dispiriting update of The Manchurian Candidate to the age of torture porn and online life
© Anton Bitel