Somnium

Somnium (2024)

Somnium world première at Chattanooga Film Festival, 22 June 2024

“So, what is it y’all do here?” asks Gemma Solomon (Chloë Levine, excellent as ever), newly come from her small town in South Georgia to Los Angeles where, like so many before her, she hopes to make her fortune as an actress. Gemma’s question is less about Hollywood in general, and more specifically about Somnium (named after the Latin for ‘dream’) – the medical start-up where she is seeking nightshift work to make ends meet. Still, the response from Somnium’s owner Dr Katherine Shaffer (Gillian White) – “We make dreams come true” – applies equally to the business and to Gemma’s other work environment.

Gemma is a dreamer. Though she could have kept waitressing in her parents’ diner back home, and eventually settled down with her small-town boyfriend Hunter (Peter Vack) in the rural dream home he hoped one day to build, Gemma’s aspirations and horizons have always been bigger – and so she has left everything behind her to try her luck at becoming a star. Yet while she certainly has talent, Gemma soon discovers the harsher realities of trying to meet her rent, let alone get noticed, in the City of Dreams. And while producer Brooks D’Arnault (Jonathan Schaech) certainly does notice her, and starts connecting her with others at weird networking parties, in the meantime she must earn her dime every night at Somnium.

There, working sometimes alongside dream designer Noah (Will Peltz) and receptionist Olivia (Clarissa Thibeaux), but mostly alone, Gemma ‘sleep-sits’ clients who have submitted to Somnium’s six-week programme – a sort of hypnotherapy where customised motivational messages are pumped directly into the patients’ subconscious, turning their aspirations into hard-wired self-belief, so that they can more readily manifest their dreams in future and become the successful ‘winners’ they have always longed to be. Think something like Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) without the insidious criminality – although Somnium is a system open to abuse.

Somnium

Even as Gemma realises that one of her colleagues is messing with clients’ (and other-people’s) minds without their consent, she is at the same time witnessing the more manipulative, exploitative side of the Hollywood machine, where it is all too easy for young women like herself to conform and lose themselves to what others want from them. Meanwhile, besides catering for its wealthy clientèle, Somnium also provides experimental overnight treatment for a certain class of emergency patient – unhinged, unruly women who are, whether they like it or not, brought in and back under control, and transformed into more acceptable yet barely recognisable versions of themselves. Accordingly, writer/director Racheal Cain’s feature debut Somnium makes parallel plotting of Gemma’s diurnal and nocturnal lives, both as an actress and as a guardian of dreamers’ shifting identities. 

Back in Georgia, music engineer Hunter’s favourite band is named Twin Peaks, but this tale of a would-be starlet caught in the Tinseltown headlights is more closely informed by two other David Lynch productions, Mulholland Dr. (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006), while Gemma’s night job and inner anxieties also evoke Anthony Scott Burns’ Come True (2020). For Gemma is on a heady trajectory of following her dreams and confronting her nightmares, all in a process of self-realisation so obviously similar to what Somnium aims to bring to its clients that we are left wondering if ultimately, in leaving her former identity forever behind her, she has triumphantly found her true self, or has merely been conditioned by someone else’s neural programming. 

Either way, Somnium is an oneiric horror cum psychodrama, where Gemma pursues her ambitions blindly – which is to say with (starry) eyes wide shut. For it is hard to be sure how much of what she – and we – see might be a mere product of the film’s image maker(s), in a city where the imagination itself can be manufactured to open itself to and accommodate (primarily male) desire.

strap: In Racheal Cain’s psychological horror, both an experimental mind-control system and the Hollywood machine serve as parallel traps for young dreamers

© Anton Bitel