Locarno 2023 review: Sweet Dreams (Ena Sendijarević)

“A cast full of Dutch veteran character actors under Sendijarević’s steady guidance create a peculiar but fascinating entry in Dutch cinema’s look at its darker side of history.”

Indonesia, the turn of the 20th century. Dutch sugar plantation owner Jan (Hans Dagelet) is taking his son Karel (Rio Kaj Den Haas) on a tiger hunt. The young boy is the son of Jan’s concubine Siti (Hayati Azis), one of the household’s servants, but he treats him like a legitimate child, much to the chagrin of his wife Agathe (Renée Soutendijk). When Jan suddenly dies his actual legitimate son Cornelis (Florian Myjer) and highly pregnant daughter-in-law Josefien (Lisa Zweerman) have to come over from The Netherlands, a trip that takes so long that Jan has to be temporarily buried on the estate. When the children arrive and an attempt is made to dig up the body so it can be given a proper burial, it can’t be found. Cornelis and Josefien intend to sell the plantation, but when Jan’s will stipulates that all his belongings will go to young Karel, they are destined to be stuck in a hostile environment, having no money for the journey back home. And all the while tension is brewing among the workers of the plantation, who haven’t been paid for over a year…

In the follow-up to her successful debut Take Me Somewhere Nice, Bosnian director Ena Sendijarević tackles Dutch colonialism at an interesting point in history. While the extortion and cruelty on estates like the one portrayed in the film was still going strong, Jan’s behaviour being a perfect example of this, on the home front more progressive voices started questioning the role of the Dutch in Indonesia. Cornelis and Josefien are an example of this more ‘modern’ way of thinking, although Sendijarević rightfully shows the disdain for the local Indonesian workers that they still harbour.

The director chooses a stylized approach to the material, which weakens the message of violence inherent in colonialism to an extent. A more naturalistic and realistic view would have probably hit home harder. Which isn’t to say Sweet Dreams fails at getting the point across. The obliviousness and ignorance of the out-of-place younger couple should raise hairs no matter what, and though Agathe has settled into a more symbiotic relationship with her indigenous staff there is still an air of turning up noses around her.

Sendijarević renders this in carefully constructed tableaux, with rich tones of red and green. Her interiors are often shot with a wide lens, given the static image the feel of looking at a diorama. This heightens the artificiality of the film, which is further compounded by stilted dialogue and consequently stilted performances in some scenes. The whole film has a sultry look, and the sexual desires of the pregnant Josefien lend the film a bit of eroticism, the sweltering Indonesian heat bringing the sexual tension between her and the rebellious factory worker Reza (Muhammad Khan), who also pines for Siti, to a boiling point.

Sweet Dreams‘ style should gain it considerable cinephile attention. Sendijarević has a clear signature that makes the film distinct, and although that same signature lessens the emotional impact that similarly themed, more conventional period dramas might have (think something like 12 Years a Slave), it creates tension that those others often lack. Its subtle, at-arms-length approach to the subject matter might alienate some viewers, but the lush cinematography (Emo Weemhoff), the wonderfully anachronistic electronic score (by Martial Foe), and a cast full of Dutch veteran character actors under Sendijarević’s steady guidance create a peculiar but fascinating entry in Dutch cinema’s look at its darker side of history.