J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Sleepwalker: Family Drama and Home Renovations

Obviously, something problematic must have happened during Christine’s childhood. The somnambulism is not such a big deal, but her penchant for awkward comments and compulsively irresponsible behavior can be a real drag. Not surprisingly, she will be a destabilizing influence when she pays a sudden visit to her half-sister in Mona Fastvold’s The Sleepwalker (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Growing up with Christine was often difficult—and Kaia still has the scars to prove it. Technically, they are burns, which are probably worse. As the model daughter, Kaia has become an outward model of stability. Despite the remembrances of her half-sister she carries in intimate places, Kaia has commenced a romantic relationship with Andrew, a local construction worker. Together, they are renovating her expatriate father’s modernist country house. They prefer to maintain their quiet privacy, but that will not be happening this weekend.

As she often does, Christine has recklessly bolted from her long-suffering fiancé, Ira, who will catch up to her in the morning. A wealthy blue-blood, he currently works as a UN Inspector. Considering how perceptive he is, it is easy to see how the Iranian nuclear program advanced so far. For reasons that remain baffling, he deduces a little sisterly togetherness will be good for Christine, so they invite themselves to stay for the weekend. None of this sits well with Andrew, the proletarian class warrior. It turns out the salt-of-the-earth worker also did time for hitting his previous girlfriend. So it should be an awesome weekend, especially when Christine starts doing highly inappropriate things in front of Kaia and Andrew while in a somnambulist state.

Norwegian actress-screenwriter Fastvold’s feature directorial debut is an English language production in its entirety, but stylistically it feels very European. The influence of Dogme 95 is inescapable, but while the film desperately wants to be Festen, it misses quite wide of the mark.

Frankly, the performances and execution are all pretty solid. As Kaia, Gitte Witt silently stews like crockpot, while Stephanie Ellis’s Christine is a suitably hot mess. Perhaps the biggest surprise is co-writer Brady Corbet, finding rewarding depth and nuance in the ever-patient Ira. Unfortunately, Christopher Abbott’s Andrew is largely a one-note resentful townie cliché. Still, the fundamental problem is all their efforts are expended on behalf of a script that only delivers a weak shrug for a payoff. We have seen this all before and we have seen it much more sharply written, so during most of the film, we have to wait for the characters to catch up with us.

Even with all the fictional renovations under way, it still looks like a cool house, so at least Sleepwalker has good architecture. Fastvold’s vibe is strong, but her narrative is weak. The cast tries hard, but their road map just won’t get them very far. A misfire but not a complete dead loss, The Sleepwalker opens this Friday (11/21) in New York at the IFC Center.