In sleepy rural Massachusetts, the illusory nature of domestic bliss fractures easily like the first frost of a winter chill. 20-somethings Kaia (Gitte Witt) and her boyfriend Andrew (ex “Girls” star Christopher Abbott) live a quiet life, renovating her late father’s isolated and modern estate. If famed architect Le Corbusier once said “the home should be the treasure chest of living,” then the structural marvel that is this domicile is more of a hollowed out trunk that contains plenty of dark skeletons. Beautiful on the outside, the inside is gutted and much repair needs doing.
A dissonant chord interrupts the fragile harmony in the form of Kaia’s estranged sister Christine (Stephanie Ellis), a peculiar girl who arrives unannounced in the middle of the night after not having been in contact for years. A further fissure appears at breakfast, Christine’s WASPY, seemingly uptight fiancé Ira (Brady Corbet), worried sick about from her abrupt disappearance the previous evening. While the palatial nature of the Bauhaus-ian estate provides ample room for both couples, the incompatible quartet quickly finds them psychologically cramped. Tension piques as Christine announces her pregnancy and Andrew’s growing discontent at sharing a home with these outsiders reveals itself. And Christine’s unnerving habit of sleepwalking in the middle of the night does nothing to let up on anyone’s discomfort.
History and unspoken trauma is everywhere and in the walls. From the mysterious fire in the garage that Christine lit (which may or may not have had to do with their father’s death), to Andrew’s rising recollection for her unhinged acts as a teenager, maybe these people are not such strangers. Andrew’s blue-collar aesthetics clash with Ira’s more refined sensibilities, and the sisterly relationship between the seemingly manic Christine and repressed Kaia becomes increasingly alienating until the emotional chaos reaches its inevitable breaking point.
Directed by first-time feature-length filmmaker Mona Fastvold and co-written with Corbet (“Martha Marcy May Marlene,” “Melancholia“), “The Sleepwalker” is a striking and well-composed study in tension, disquieting sensations and acute family dysfunction. So much is suggested and yet never spoken about Christine and Kaia’s tenuous relationship and what happened with her father. In quieter moments, a dream-like state takes over as the two sisters affectionately bond and enjoy each other’s company, albeit however briefly.
Like a chilly chamber drama by Ingmar Bergman with doses of unnerving David Lynch qualities thrown in for good measure, “The Sleepwalker” is masterful in the manner with which it builds disquietude, the impression that something’s amiss slowly growing as the two couples become less and less tolerant of each other. Christopher Abbot’s Andrew character in particular is well drawn, a the brutish laborer clearly threatened by at the arrival of the more erudite Ira, and the unhinged and totally damaged Christine. Part of it is his instinctual gut feeling that this couple will bring no good to the home, coupled by a deep insecurity which he masks with a tough veneer. And perhaps part of it is a violence that lives within himself that the unsophisticated man doesn’t understand (the prevalent yet understated issues of class are also a nice touch). Perhaps most incisive and perceptive however is the portrait drawn of complex female dynamics. Like children at once enamored and jealous of one another, Witt and Ellis almost pretend to act like adults while dancing around the suffering of what was surely a distressed upbringing. They share sister code: the tacit understanding that they will not discuss their troubled and obviously fractured adolescence that is obliquely implied throughout and yet never stated.
Scored by Sondre Lerche and collaborator Kato Ådland, those expecting the sing-songy songwriter jingles that made the Norwegian singer a pop star in his native home and abroad will be in for a huge shock at the discordant and troubling mood the duo create musically (perhaps a little akin to the percussive dissension in Jonnny Greenwood’s “There Will Be Blood” score). Lensed by Zack Galler, a subtle claustrophobia encroaches on every frame adding to the discomfort, and the fuming sound design does creepy wonders too.
Sometimes one gets the innate sense that an budding artist is on the cusp of great things, coalescing themes, preoccupations and ideas into what pundits refer to as a “body of work” when they notice a pattern materialize. While that moment is not quite crystallized yet, something is definitely percolating for actor/screenwriter Brady Corbet. Having written the similarly disquieting “Simon Killer” with Antonio Campos and now “The Sleepwalker” with Fastvold, one gets the feeling that Corbet is on the verge as emerging as a unique and fascinating voice in indie cinema (and with Corbet’s directorial debut, co-written by Fastvold on its way, starring Juliette Binoche, Robert Pattinson and Tim Roth, that moment appears to be right around the corner). Years later, we may look back on this film as the beginning of an artistic collaboration we now cherish.
Featuring an opaque, evocative and haunting ending, while Fastvold and Corbet’s script refuses to ever spell itself out, the provocative film insinuates plenty that will disturb and linger. A darkly mysterious and extremely accomplished first feature, “The Sleepwalker” suggests the things we lost in the fire might be much deeper than material possessions; an innocence set ablaze forever to smolder in the blackened consciousness of broken people. [B+]