This movie. This movie is certainly something. Ya ne Splyu aka Sleepless Beauty is… a mindfuck? Gratuitous torture porn? Both? It is definitely a deeply, deeply unpleasant and uncomfortable watch. A tip of the hat must be given to director Pavel Khvaleev (Involution, The Random) and writer Aleksandra Khvaleeva (III: The Ritual, Involution) for crafting something that is so unsettling on a deeply visceral level.
The film opens with what we are told is a failed assassination attempt on a Russian ambassador. We then cut to a young woman called Mila (Polina Davydova) who is abducted from her apartment one day, awaking inside an empty boiler room. A voice over a loudspeaker informs her that she is in “Recreation” and that there is only one rule – sleeping is forbidden.
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What follows is fifty-some minutes of physical and mental abuse as Mina is pushed to the limits of what she can stand. Her torments are streamed online to a chatroom filled with anonymous viewers while the two administrators make strange, veiled comments about why they are doing what they are doing and what their end goal is, while Mila’s physical and mental condition both deteriorate as the days tick by.
While there’s no actual physical rape in this film, there is still plenty of torture and mental degradation and it’s all the more effective for not being overplayed or sensationalised. The techniques used to break Mila down were all the more unpleasant because it wasn’t that long ago that I saw them being used in another film. These are the same techniques that were employed on real people by the guards at Guantanamo Bay, as shown in the really quite excellent film The Mauritanian.
Sleepless Beauty even features a bizarre animated segment where the audience gets to share in the things that Mina was being forced to watch, and it was like Terry Gilliam and HR Giger went on a bad acid trip and animated what they saw. Twisted, monstrous creatures comprised of sexual organs and mutilated limbs vomit bugs into each other, exploding and birthing more horrors that dance and gyrate and turn themselves inside out before getting run over by a screaming, skull-faced train made of human skin.
The film has definite shades of other such torture-centric movies such as Hostel and Saw, but I was most strongly reminded of 2002’s My Little Eye, in which five people are offered a million dollars if they will spend six months living together in an isolated house while, again, their every move recorded and streamed online to anonymous viewers who are betting on which of them will be the next to die.
Polina Davydova’s performance is simply amazing. She gives it her all and is achingly sympathetic and believable in every scene. She makes it all too easy to be drawn into this film, into the horrors being inflicted on her, to be one of those anonymous faces in the chatroom, a perverted voyeur witnessing a woman’s psychological destruction.
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There is really only one bit in the film which doesn’t entirely ring true, which is a sub-plot with one of Mila’s neighbours who we see steal a shawl that she’s dropped in the stairwell early in the film. I won’t spoil it, but his little arc seems strangely out of place in the overall storyline, like perhaps they intended to do more with this character and then either decided against it or perhaps his scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, as so often happens.
Sleepless Beauty is not a film for everyone. It is difficult and uncomfortable to watch in terms of content, to say nothing of the additional barrier of being spoken entirely in Russian with subtitles, but at the same time it is one I would recommend to horror fans, it’s one I would go back to watch again to catch the nuances and moments that I might have missed the first time round. It’s a horrible ride, but one I’d go on again.
Sleepless Beauty is playing at Grimmfest Easter Horror Nights until 5th April.