‘Sweet Dreams’ Review: A Gorgeous, Sardonic Portrait of Colonial Decline

It takes place on a sugar plantation, but Ena Sendijarević’s magnificently composed, eerily satirical “Sweet Dreams” has something more like acid flowing through its veins. Acid — or maybe formaldehyde, given the embalmed pallor of the dysfunctional Dutch colonial family whose values are so elegantly dissected within it. In only her second feature, after the Rotterdam-awarded “Take Me Somewhere Nice,” the Bosnian-Dutch filmmaker has established herself as a formidable talent with an eye for absurdity in Academy ratio, and a feel for the manicured, placid surfaces that contain rot and rebellion just as corsetry cinches in flesh.

It is 1900, and this little corner of the Dutch East Indies is verdant, damp jungle terrain. The air is thick with biting insects. Vincent Sinceretti’s extravagantly rich sound design is so multilayered that you can differentiate the crickets from the gnats from the omnipresent, whining mosquitoes. But part of the wilderness has been tamed — or more accurately, despoiled — to cultivate sugar cane, and a gloomy, opulent mansion has been built for the owners of the nearby refinery. Agathe (Locarno Best Performance-winner Renée Soutendijk), wife of plantation owner Jan (Hans Dagelet) moves through its ebony-paneled rooms like an imperious ghost. In high-necked, bone-colored gowns that seem old-fashioned even for the time, she’s proudly uninvolved in the family business except insofar as it supplies the sugar she spoons copiously into her tea.

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Most of the time, her only companion is Siti (a stealthy, graceful Hayati Azis), the Indonesian housekeeper whose sense of self-preservation, as well as the fact that Jan is the father of her young son Karel (Rio Den Haas), gives rise to a watchful pragmatism with regard to her Dutch employer-exploiters. In the course of Sendijarević’s cunning screenplay, and in response to the constant amorous attentions of Reza (Muhammad Khan), the most firebrand of the plantation’s strike-leading local workers, Siti’s complicated, enigmatic psychology gradually becomes the film’s focus.

While his wife molders at home, Jan runs the business and goes on tiger-hunting expeditions with Karel, a brown-skinned boy with a white boy’s name and a little emperor’s sense of entitlement. He is a perfect emblem of a cruelty beyond the obvious violence and theft that colonists can visit on the colonized. So turned inside-out by his father’s doting attentions, when Jan harshly humiliates one of his Indonesian servants, the little boy laughs in glee.

Then, one evening, after visiting a resigned Siti for one of his regular acts of rape, Jan keels over in his marital bedroom, and the bell he reaches for to call for help is coolly moved out of his reach by Agathe (a gesture that tells you all you need to know about their relationship). Suddenly widowed, Agathe summons her son Cornelius (Florian Myjer) from the Netherlands with his pregnant wife Josefien (Lisa Zweerman), so that he can take over the sugar factory. But when they arrive, they discover that Jan has disinherited them all in favor of Karel, the half-brother Cornelius wasn’t aware he had. Quickly the veneer of civilized rationality crumbles as the family plots to keep their wealth, with all of it tending inevitably toward ironic tragedy, including one spectacularly poetic suicide, which would be the centerpiece of any other film but that Sendijarević has the confidence to treat as an anticlimactic aside.

The approach to this torrid tale, set in sweltering climes, is icily detached. Collaborating with DP Emo Weemhoff, who also shot her debut, the director has developed a striking visual style, using formalist, pictorialist framing and symmetry to suggest the desperate asymmetries of colonial power, in a manner that recalls Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama” or more recently, Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s “The Settlers.” And like in those films, production and costume design (here by Myrte Beltman and Bernadette Corstens respectively) play key narrative roles — the imagery is minimalist, so what is included takes on heightened symbolic importance, from a fine china tea-set to a lace collar to an unsuitable shoe sinking into the tropical ooze.

Even Evalotte Oosterop’s hair and makeup tells its own story. Skin is important here, not just its color but its texture as Josephine, for example, goes from elegant sophisticate to sweaty, sunburned, frizzy virago increasingly swollen with pregnancy and angry mosquito bites. It parallels the idea that the occupiers are being assailed not just by the indigenous population, but by the very environment they hold in such contempt. The trees, the ground, the very air seems to hate them, but like all hate, it cuts both ways. So while the divisively dreamlike ending does have cathartic comeuppance value, it also contains fear for the future — our present — which will be inherited by this sly, dark, story’s only real survivor: a child born of two worlds, belonging to neither, who has learned nothing but the most brutal lessons from both.

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