The Other Side of Sleep: Cannes Review

The Other Side of Sleep - Movie Still - 2011
Cannes Film Festival
First-time director Rebecca Daly’s approach is suitably dream-like, but her material cries out for grittier detail.

Murder-mystery from first-time director Rebecca Daly deliberately avoids suspense.

CANNES -- In her first feature, The Other Side of Sleep, Irish director Rebecca Daly channels much creative energy into atmosphere and mood, but shows less skill at developing characters or escalating tension. Like its chronic sleepwalker protagonist, who still bears the psychic scars of the disappearance and death of her mother 20 years earlier, this somber drama inhabits a gloomy dream state that’s intriguing but far too opaque.

The film opens mid-dream, as Arlene (Antonia Campbell-Hughes) wakes up in the woods of her small rural hometown in the Irish midlands next to the murdered body of a young woman. Reality and subconscious immediately begin to blur as news circulates that local girl Gina has been killed while returning home after a night out partying. Like a ghost observing her own life from the outside, Arlene registers the gossipy speculation of her fellow factory workers and the shell-shocked grief of Gina’s family at a community prayer service.

Obsessively collecting newspaper coverage of the murder while returning repeatedly to a photograph of the mother she was too young to remember, Arlene insinuates herself into the lives of the dead girl’s family. She befriends Gina’s sister (Vicky Joyce), and cautiously gets closer to the victim’s boyfriend (Sam Keeley), a suspect in the murder.

While the police investigation happens outside the confines of the narrative, Daly and co-screenwriter Glenn Montgomery cast suspicion over a number of shadowy figures, including Arlene’s factory boss and Gina’s troubled father. It’s suggested that Arlene might have committed the murder herself while sleepwalking, but more strongly, that she is courting her own death by wandering the town at night, willfully exposing herself to danger.

All this is moderately absorbing, but the filmmaker’s deliberate avoidance of suspense keeps the drama remote and unaffecting. Even in high-meltdown mode when Arlene is trashing her kitchen and smashing plates, we’re never encouraged to feel much for her, despite Campbell-Hughes’ intense vulnerability.

Characterized by extended silences, minimal dialogue, static shots and penetrating close-ups, the film’s melancholy stillness feels a little studied and its slow pacing makes it a slog. The contrasting notes of balefulness and raw sorrow are disquieting at times, but overall, its spell tends to dissipate without getting under the skin.

In texture, it’s not unlike AMC’s The Killing and the Danish TV series from which that highly addictive procedural drama was adapted. That show conjures death and grief into palpable, insidious forces that condition wave upon wave of unpredictable, often irrational behavior. Daly’s film, however, remains soft and impressionistic, too caught up in its own ambiguities.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Directors' Fortnight
Sales: Memento Films International
Production: Fastnet Films, in co-production with KMH Films, Rinkel Film
Cast: Antonia Campbell-Hughes, Sam Keeley, Vicky Joyce, Olwen Fouere, Finian Robbins, Cathy Belton
Director: Rebecca Daly
Screenwriters: Rebecca Daly, Glenn Montgomery
Producers: Morgan Bushe, Macdara Kelleher
Director of photography: Suzie Lavelle
Production designer: Eleanor Wood
Music: Michel Schopping, Marc Lizier
Costume designer: Andrea Flesch
Editor: Halina Daugrid
No rating; 91 minutes