'Beyond Sleep' ('Nooit meer slapen'): Rotterdam Review

Sleep Still - H 2016
Courtesy of International Film Festival Rotterdam

Boudewijn Koole's adaptation of the classic Dutch novel kicked off the 45th edition of the independent-minded festival.

A young geologist's explorations in Arctic Norway prove frustratingly fruitless in Boudewijn Koole's Beyond Sleep (Noit meer slapen), latest evidence that outstanding novels seldom translate well into other media. Adapting Willem Frederik Hermans' beloved 1966 book — acknowledged as one of the great classics of 20th century Dutch literature — proves to be material beyond a writer-director who made such a successful leap from documentaries to features with his 2012 debut Kauwboy. The great popularity of the novel, which until quite recently was taught in schools, augurs well for domestic release on February 11th. Valuable publicity was provided by the film's world-premiere as the opener of a revamped Rotterdam Film Festival at a gala attended by Queen Maxima.

Prospects in Scandinavian territories will be boosted by the Norwegian angles, with Melle van Essen's widescreen cinematography doing full justice to the big-sky, big-mountain terrain of Finnmark in the nightless mid-summer. Beyond Sleep looks a long-shot for distribution elsewhere, however, as Hermans' novel wasn't translated into English until 2006 and enjoys only a relatively small cult following. The countless festivals who programmed Koole's last offering —  winner of the best debut prize at the European Film Awards — will want to check it out, though this introspective tale of psychological anxiety is by its nature a tougher sell than the youth-oriented charms of Kauwboy.

Koole's screenplay, much of which is in 'international' English (used as a lingua franca between the Dutch and Norwegian characters), dispenses entirely with the urban-set opening chapters of the Hermans original. For fifteen years a lecturer in physical geography, Hermans — whose esteem was such that he was sometimes tipped as a potential Nobel Literature laureate before his death in 1995 (the Netherlands remains without success on that score) — used his university experience to provide a wryly amusing subtext involving feuds between veteran academics; here only glancingly and tantalizingly touched upon.

The focus is squarely on thirty-ish Alfred (Reinout Scholten van Aschat), a second-generation geologist working very much in the shadow of his late father, who was killed in a fieldwork fall. Seeking to test a hypothesis regarding meteorite craters, Alfred is joined in mosquito-infested northern Norway by local guide Arne (Pal Sverre Hagen) and a pair of geology students, Mikkelsen (Anders Baasmo Christiansen) and Qvigstad (Thorbjorn Harr). Alfred is viewed with some suspicion by the Viking-like latter duo, their Norwegian chatter and physical rough-housing furthering the Dutch foreigner's tendencies towards inwardness.

He gets on better with Arne, and the friendship between the pair feels like it should become the focus of the picture in the second half after Mikkelsen and Qvigstad branch off on their own itinerary. Instead, the somewhat hapless and clumsy Alfred gets lost in this hazardous terrain and wanders solo for miles, drifting towards potential insanity and physical peril. Events culminate in a shocking discovery — not so shocking for the audience, unfortunately, as it was fleetingly previewed during the film's own opening credits.

Koole and his editor Gys Zevenbergen — with sterling assistance from Mark Glynne's claustrophobic sound design — clearly aim to replicate Alfred's disorientation, solitude and confusion, but instead can only set the viewer adrift in a soporific miasma with little sense of direction or purpose. As an ordeal of persistence and survival in the wilderness, Beyond Sleep certainly doesn't even begin to give The Revenant a run for its money — and the CGI meteorites which are occasionally shown floating Earthward through space aren't anywhere near as convincing as Leonardo DiCaprio's ursine tormentor.

The computer-enhanced graphics are more effective in a dream-sequence involving a tiny Alfred on the belly of a gigantic supermodel, but this bit feels like it belongs in an entirely different film altogether. In terms of festival-circuit parallels, meanwhile, viewers may be reminded of Julia Loktev's Georgia-set The Loneliest Planet from 2011 — although this latest variation on such themes lacks that predecessor's psychological and gender-role nuances.

And whereas Hermans deployed a first-person, jotting-book style — plus considerable dry humor — to transport the reader into Alfred's mind, the film uses staccato, repetitive, downbeat narration which never quite manages to turn the protagonist into a living, breathing individual. The other characters are even more cipher-like, with no back-stories and few personality traits to render them engaging or memorable. Beyond Sleep thus squanders considerable potential as it stumbles into a series of thematic and philosophical dead-ends, even though each of these culs-de-sac is enticingly picturesque.

Production companies: KeyFilm

Cast: Reinout Scholten van Aschat, Pal Sverre Hagen, Thorbjorn Harr, Anders Baasmo Christiansen

Director / Screenwriter: Boudewijn Koole, based on the novel by Willem Frederik Hermans

Producers: Hans de Wolf, Hanneke Niens

Cinematographer: Melle van Essen

Production designer / Costume designer: Merete Bodstrom

Editor: Gys Zevenbergen

Composer: Alex Simu

Sound: Mark Glynne

Casting: Cannibal Casting, Kemna Casting (Jannecke Bervel, Marc van Bree)

Sales: KeyFilm, Amsterdam

No Rating, 107 minutes