Based on a story by Sheridan le Fanu, Sleep is about English aristocrat, Robert (Brendan Price), who longs to visit Post-Revolution Paris to gamble, to drink, and to consort with various continental women. His father will not allow him to do so and arranges for him to be married. However, fortuitously for Robert, he dies before his wishes are fulfilled. It’s off to France with his manservant, Sean (Niall Toibin). En route to Paris, Robert’s coach is almost driven off the road by a sinister-looking coach, replete with the crest of a Dragon. Inside, Robert catches a glimpse of a beautiful woman. Robert’s coach gives chase, and they find the sinister-looking coach at an inn outside Paris. While dining, Robert meets the Marquis (Patrick Magee) who offers to accompany Robert to Paris and introduce him into society. Colonel Gaillard (Per Oscarsson) arrives at the inn with his guard and he threatens the Count (Curd Jürgens) and his wife, Countess Elga (Marilù Tolo). Robert steps in and subdues the Colonel. The beautiful young woman, whom Robert spied within the sinister-looking coach, is the Countess. Robert is smitten and follows the Countess (with the Marquis) to Paris that very evening. A young chambermaid is murdered that evening with her throat torn out. Colonel Gaillard seems suspicious but unsurprised and follows onto Paris…
Sleep is set during a very interesting historical period, the rise of the Enlightenment and the end of Superstition. It is within these two schools where the filmmakers, screenwriters Calvin and Yvonne Floyd with direction by Calvin, frame their narrative. One of the most interesting questions to be posed within such a narrative is, “Could one who is so ‘enlightened’ exploit the superstitions of those around him for his own gain?” The drama which unfolds in Sleep gives an answer to this question.
During my first viewing of Sleep, I brought my own memories of le Fanu cinema and saw them in the production. Tolo, who plays the Countess, is eerily evocative of Ingrid Pitt who played in the excellent le Fanu adaptation, The Vampire Lovers (1970). Both actresses were about the same age in their respective roles. Sleep also has direct allusions with imagery taken from Carl Theodor Dryer’s masterpiece, Vampyr (1932). During a second viewing, I was able to put those memories aside and see how cleverly crafted the narrative is. Sleep is really told from the point of view of Robert, and all the characters appear to the viewer as they would to Robert—The Countess is beautiful and seductive; the Marquis is a kind confidant; and the Colonel seems overzealous and crazy. Since Sleep is a historical piece, the costumes and the apparent authentic locations also contribute to the narrative’s seductive beauty. About midway through the film, when Robert attends a masquerade ball hosted by the Count and the Countess, it becomes obvious that Robert is being set-up. As to what kind of ending Robert is being primed, this remains a mystery.
Patrick Magee and Per Oscarsson are two amazing actors who give easily the best performances in Sleep. During the final act, when both of their characterizations have a full turn is when both shine. I especially love how their two story arcs are concluded, with especial note to Oscarsson’s character: his character’s ending is cryptic, and I use that word with more than one meaning. The Sleep of Death is an adult drama, wrapped tightly in mystery, for the curious to seek out.