Monday 12 April 2021

The Question in Bodies #33: Sleepless Beauty (2020); III (2015)

Sleepless Beauty (AKA Я не сплю, 2020); III (AKA III: The Ritual, 2015)

I am going to give away all the plot developments in the Russian torturefest that is Sleepless Beauty (the original title, Я не сплю, translates as “I am not sleeping”). This is because everything that's interesting in the movie – and there’s quite a lot that’s interesting – is rear-loaded, and depends upon you having seen it. Also, there isn’t a whole lot of plot to give away. But in giving away what there is of the film’s plot, I rob you of having any reason to see it. Do you want to see it? That’s a question that inspires an inhalation through gritted teeth, really. My gut says “probably not”. The same goes to a slightly lesser extent for its 2015 predecessor III. You’ve been warned.

For what it is, Sleepless Beauty is not a technically bad movie. It achieves what it sets out to do. What it sets out to do, however, is to present an entirely nihilistic and depressing portrayal of the worst impulses of human nature, and the worst things humans can do to humans, and then to indict the viewer for participating.

Sleepless Beauty is directed by Pavel Khvaleev and written by his wife Aleksandra Khvaleeva, and they also worked together on the 2015 folk horror piece III (AKA III: The Ritual), which I originally passed over as a candidate for inclusion in We Don’t Go Back after seeing it because at the time I didn’t feel it had a whole lot to say. III was well done, competently performed and beautifully designed, but I remembered being oddly uderwhelmed by it, without really remembering why, and something about watching Sleepless Beauty nagged at me a bit, so I decided to go back and watch it again.

But first, the more recent one. Here is the plot of Sleepless Beauty, in its entirety: an ambassador survives an assassination attempt; Mila (Polina Davydova) is kidnapped and taken to “Recreation”, a run-down industrial site, where she is not permitted to sleep; her captors subject her to a creative parade of physical, psychological and surgical processes intended to brainwash her into becoming a killer, her only human contact being a silent man who brutalises and confines her (Evgeniy Gagarin); all of the time that this is happening, she is watched on a Twitch-style livestream by a community of internet gamers who make incessant, callous comments on her plight; she is released; no longer able to recognise her father because of the trauma she has experienced, she murders him in a frenzy and then retreats into a persistent vegetative state; satisfied with their efforts, the culprits then kidnap the ambassador's soon-to-be-ex-wife, which fact reveals that Mila’s torment served no other purpose than a dry run to see if a planned act of terrorism would work.

So it’s a movie about the process of brainwashing, which is why I sought it out as soon as I heard about it, because that’s a thing I care about. And specifically Sleepless Beauty is about what you would have to do in real life to create a Manchurian Candidate-style assassin, and to a lesser extent it approaches the sort of person who would do this to someone. 

The sort of person who would do this to someone is the sort of person who would find gleeful enjoyment in watching a woman being traumatised beyond the point of being able to form coherent thought and posting puerile and casually misogynistic jokes in a live chat. Which, as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, basically means the extreme right, because video game nerds and Nazis being practically cognate, it turns out, is an unexpected cultural pass not confined to English speaking countries. They're not called Nazis in the film. They don’t have to be. They’re Nazis. They have negligible regard for long term planning and care nothing for consequences. They consider other people as disposable – especially women. They consider moral qualms as weak and enjoy the pain of people they hold in contempt. Nazis, QED.

Mila is converted into a killer through the creative application of a variety of traumas. She is subject to cruel practical jokes. She is forced to sit inches away from a woman who is shot in the head, and spends most of the rest of the movie with her face and upper body covered with the nameless, faceless victim’s blood. She gets screwed into a coffin with a sack full of rats, and doesn’t get released until she has killed them with her bare hands. And she is forced to sit for hours tied to a chair with a VR headset that blasts her senses with a grotesque series of images that are halfway between Terry Gilliam and HR Giger. Eventually, when she has been pushed into a state of near-fugue, she is – while still conscious – subjected to keyhole brain surgery. Apparently, we find in the film’s coda, this is for the purpose of damaging her ability to recognise faces. Her cognition seems to be impaired now as well; after her nonconsensual temporal lobectomy, she never says another word.

All of this makes Mila good for exactly one murder, that of her own father, who simply comes looking for her after receiving a cryptic text message from her (still stolen) phone. After stabbing him to death, she disintegrates, and becomes no longer capable of independent function at all.

It's established that the unseen culprits want to kill the ambassador even before they kidnap poor Mila. The twist is that Mila isn’t the vehicle for the act. She is a randomly chosen test subject. It could have happened to anyone. If they chose her it’s because they hate women. Of course they are going to pick the ambassador’s wife for their final instrument: in one of the very few scenes in the film not dedicated to Mila’s brutal conditioning, we learn that the divorce is acrimonious, and the ambassador’s nameless wife despises her husband. Getting her to murder him seems a foregone conclusion.

Seriously, finding decent screenshots from this thing was really hard because how many pictures of a distressed woman tied to a chair do we really want?

But we won’t see that. We don’t need to. The whole point is to concentrate on Mila, because no one else, other than the viewers of this film, will ever know that she is part of the ambassador’s imminent demise. There will be security agents, and analysts and psychologists; there will be experts in counterterrorism who have been caught on the back foot again. And no one will know or care about Mila. She is collateral damage, and doubly so because even though everything she went through has been mediated by a screen, and for a lot of this film a screen within a screen, her experience is invisible. The bleakness of this conclusion is crushing.

While it is arguable that the loose cannon plan of the shadowy villains might prove successful a second time, the brainwashing technique used in the film has the hallmarks of something that would ultimately work. Sleep deprivation, hunger, repeated acts designed to depersonalise and inure the subject to violence, forced exposure to traumatising media: all of these things have been shown to be effective. It is quite possible to traumatise someone psychologically and neurally to a sufficient extent that, in their stress, they would lash out fatally once, and it is reasonable to assume that after that one occasion, the victim will be traumatised further. People do hideous things to people all the time, and those hideous things force the victims to terrible extremes. That’s simply true.

The issue is, really, why even make this film? It demonstrates how to destroy a person to the extent that they will do something terrible without really knowing they’re doing it. It demonstrates the sort of people who might want to do that. It is confident enough in its execution not to moralise: it knows these things are bad, and doesn’t need to tell you they are bad, and Polina Davydova sells Mila’s descent pretty well.

But there are no consequences except the bad ones. The bad guys win. The horror is explicit and unrelenting, and it falls into the trap of doing misogyny, while showing misogyny. In fact Sleepless Beauty is so clinical and detailed that it might even reasonably be used as a manual for trying an act like this, although I hasten to add that I don’t for a second think anyone ever will and I hope you trust that I have no time for that Mary Whitehouse “ban this for the sake of the children” nonsense.

The live chat that we see scrolling up the side of the screen for so much of the movie is full of the sort of statements the worst sort of gaming nerds make. There is a dreadful, sociopathic entitlement here. They want to see more. They want the torture to go faster. They want to see her fighting the rats inside the coffin (and neither we nor they in fact get to do this). Some get banned by the moderators for weirdly specific, insignificant violations of protocol. But they are mainly watching for the purposes of entertainment, and here is, I think, Aleksandra Khvaleev’s gotcha: (all together now) so are we. They are there as a corrective for us. The Khvaleevs are saying with their movie: do not respond to Mila's plight in the same way as this bunch of dipshits.

Sleepless Beauty is an almost documentary depiction of a horrible but fairly plausible process of brainwashing without underrepresenting the damage that such a process might do to its victim, and without illusions as to its continued effectiveness or the chances of her healing from it. But it wants you to feel bad about enjoying it while presenting itself for your (presumable) enjoyment.

Anecdotally, I have been told by a friend who lives and works in Moscow and has ample professional reason to have access to this information that a kink for “imprisonment and torture by faceless Orwellian agencies” is (in my friend’s opinion) more prevalent among Russians than it is among people of other nationalities. Wishing to see if my Russian friend’s information is accurate, I made the mistake, naïve fool that I am, of Googling “Russian torture fetish” (pro tip: don’t Google “Russian torture fetish”). Well. I can report that it does look like a real thing. A thing that I’m not so much not into as really fucking wishing I could unsee. But you have to balance the apparent hardcore, this-is-for-keepsies nature of Russian adult media with the way that the Russian legislature has cracked down on the LGBTQ+ and BDSM communities in the last few decades. These things are often so extreme because they have been forced underground – things that are criminalised wind up being contaminated by the criminal. BDSM should be safe, sane and consensual, but a thing thrown into the dark web is vulnerable to influences that admit none of those three precepts. Which brings us back to Sleepless Beauty.

Because Sleepless Beauty is a film intended to draw on things that we fear might really be on the Dark Web. In fact, it admits the same ideas that Demonlover did nearly twenty years ago, what with a chat room egging on real-time torture. The newer film then ties that to radicalisation, brainwashing and terrorism… and its cost.

But that is not the story. Which really is what critics mean when they talk about “torture porn”. Sleepless Beauty is exactly torture porn, albeit torture porn that is trying to tell you that you are bad for enjoying this, and probably also a Nazi. It wants you to examine the concept of torture porn, but it is still the thing it is examining.


, like Sleepless Beauty, is also very much the work of Pavel Khvaleev and Alexandra Khvaleeva, and revisiting it, it does put the later film in context (there is also a third film, Involution (2018), a dystopian sci-fi, which I have not seen). The Khvaleevs deserve real admiration for getting III off the ground and getting it international streaming distribution on a complete shoestring. The credits are minimal, and you can see the same names (including Khvaleeva) appear in background roles two or three times each. Khvaleev, who is also part of Russian electronica duo Moonbeam, wrote and performed most of the score, while the closing credits feature a song written and performed by Khvaleeva (as her own project, Loolacoma). Practical (especially makeup) effects are excellent and digital effects quite a bit less so. But there is a very real sense that Khvaleev is making the absolute best with what he has, and stretches everything to its absolute limit. There are some things that don't work, but you can see how in Sleepless Beauty Khvaleev has nailed down what works and what doesn’t. 

In some places the cheapness actually benefits the piece. For example, the minimal costumes and the use of locations make it very hard to pin down exactly when this film is supposed to be set: is it set in a contemporary but remote milieu, some undefined historical era, or some postapocalyptic future? There are no cars, for instance, but there are no horses and carts either: everyone walks everywhere. There are no phones or TVs, and the one external communication shown in the film is delivered by letter, which suggests Russia pre-revolution, but no one is dressed anything like a nineteenth century Russian peasant, and in particular the dresses worn by the female protagonists wouldn't really look out of place on a contemporary urban street. Obviously, it’s quite plausible that Khvaleev’s budget did not extend to a full set of period costumes, but unmooring the film from any specific period gives the whole piece an odd, dreamlike quality, which does serve its agenda. 

A mention of a lobotomy by a worker in an asylum during the film’s prologue would place the action some time after 1930 and before 1950 (which was when the practice was officially banned in the Soviet Union), but again, it’s hard to pin down. Thematically, III is about a return to old practices, which means that it’s either a) set in Stalin's Russia; b) the director didn’t check when psychiatric hospitals performed surgery like this; or c) it’s deliberately fantastical. To be honest, it doesn’t really matter, an it’s better not to have that question answered definitively, aside from to note how oddly unmoored from history this piece is.  

III is largely set in a village where there's some sort of contagion; the homes of people who catch it are boarded up and the victims are either left to die or recover. Teenage sisters Aya (Polina Davydova) and Mirra (Luba Ignatushko) tend to their dying mother (Galina Kritsuk), who as a last wish places them in the care of local priest Father Herman (Evgeniy Gagarin). Mirra catches the plague too, and Aya takes her to the priest, rather than be left to die. Without much hope for a conventional cure, Aya stumbles across Father Herman’s secret, that, after a personal tragedy which shattered his faith, he has been dabbling in things that the Church would not approve of. The priest explains to Aya that using a shamanic ritual called kamlanie (the name of a real-world shamanic practice, albeit as far as I can tell not one that bears much resemblance to the one in the film), Aya might have access to her sister’s subconscious and her fevered nightmares, and there bring her younger sister back to health. 

Thematically, at this point, III comes across as a bit of a dry run for Sleepless Beauty. The ritual involves shaving both girls’ heads and the priest ramming a needle into the back of Aya’s skull. Aya experiences a series of nightmarish, mindbending visions as she navigates Mirra’s tortured dreamscape and runs the risk of being trapped in the vision world forever. Although much happens in the open air, there is a sense of being closed in, of a labyrinth. There are monstrous visions. In one, Mirra shows Aya gaping wounds in her torso, because her mother is eating her. In another, probably the most powerful image in the whole film, the sisters are confronted with a field full of half-buried women (among them Khvaleeva) who repeat the lies women tell themselves to shoulder the blame for their own abuse. 

But it doesn’t quite hold together. A short prologue showing a young man kidnapped from an insane asylum pays off at the end of the film, but only inasmuch as it is the only setup we get for the film’s twist. The priest's motivations are inconsistent: he is signified as sincere in his wish to help the sisters (for example, there is a scene where, alone, he prays to God about his desire to help them), but also he turns out to be the villain of the piece all along. To have him break the metaphysical rules the film has laid out for the kamlanie, and walk into the dreamscape to more or less go, “I was lying all along, I am the baddie, and these are in fact my motivations,” without any real setup beyond a two-minute pre-credits prologue that has not been referenced at any other point in the film is a little disappointing.

This is an odd tangent, I suppose, but Polina Davydova – who, like Evgeniy Gagarin, was not apparently a professional actor before working with the Khvaleevs – has only made only two films to date, III and Sleepless Beauty. In both films Khvaleev and Khvaleeva subject her to mindbending labyrinthine horrors. In both films she is tortured by a character played by Evgeniy Gagarin, in both films sharp objects violate her brain, and in both films her character ends the film in a persistent vegetative state as a result of her trauma. I don’t know what to make of that, If I'm honest. 

Both III and Sleepless Beauty travel in the same direction, in that both present an oblique approach to interrogating an institutional and cultural abuse of women and the trauma these systems inflict. Male rescuers are at best well-meaning but incompetent (in Sleepless Beauty, it's Mila’s dad, in III it’s the town doctor) and at worst lying. In III, fighting for survival provides a pyrrhic victory; in Sleepless Beauty, it’s simply futile. in both cases, only mindless acquiescence in the face of shattering psychological trauma remains to the heroine. 

III doesn’t try to have its cake and eat it the way that Sleepless Beauty does, but it is also nowhere nearly as neatly structured and directed. What this means is that between III and Sleepless Beauty you have enough pieces for one really good movie, in that the things that are good about III are the the things that aren’t about Sleepless Beauty, and vice versa. Are they worth looking up? They’re not not worth looking up, I think. And in terms of cinema, they prove that you can make movies with almost no resources at all that stand up qualitatively alongside any number of much more formulaic major studio pieces.