In each film I have ever treasured—held close to my heart and shared only like an heirloom or a rite of initiation—I can guarantee that I have nodded off at least once. This is unsurprising, given my generally distressing relationship with what others might call sleep. For me, sleep does not slip on and off like a negligée; it is not smooth, restful, aqueous. It towers above me with a vengeful eye, exacting its command upon my waking hours, impervious to pleas for clemency. When I am not sleeping, I am constantly thinking about sleeping: whether I am getting too much or too little; whether I might fall asleep tonight, or on the bus, or on some companion at the cinema who assumes the unenviable task of rousing me from their shoulder. Sometimes we—sleep and I—strike a cautious detente. Weeks pass without vexation. My pupils are propped open like dinner plates; through them the world beams in all its glorious entirety. A gleam on each surface, hues unfurling like secrets. Then the peace talks dissolve. Sleep ascends once more to its iron throne. It is elusive, fascistic. Call it a landlord.
I am hardly alone in these predilections: no-one makes it past the age of 25 with their sleeping habits unscathed unless they are incredibly sane, which I am not. What I am is prone to fits of fixation: I interrogate my sleep, trying to eke out some quantitative truth in the entropy. It feels like seeing animals in the clouds: a trick designed to placate an unmoored mind, as if all the mysteries of the firmament could be contained within a bunny.
To sleep, then, is to surrender: to its vastness, to its endless ambiguities. I scream into the void and the void ghosts me. Within the confines of a movie theatre—its airlessness, its artificial climate—it is easy to surrender. In bed, one is plagued by the horrors of their lives, the dreadful violence of existence. In the cinema, any anxieties of one’s own resemble a distant memory.
It sounds like an excuse for my improprieties, but to fall asleep during a film might be the greatest compliment I can bestow to its lilting pleasures, its phantasmic powers which have lulled me into a state I cannot attain alone. Sleep is no indicator of a work’s volume or agitation; I have drifted off in the quietest of longueurs and the brashest of horrors. Watching The Shining several Halloweens ago, I close my eyes for a half-second during one of Shelley Duvall’s infernal, iridescent shrieks and I’m gone, drooling onto the sofa, grateful for the respite—until I’m stirred by a housemate’s terrible knock at the window. During a screening of The Piano earlier this winter, I snore so audibly that Jane Campion’s weepy overtures are reduced to background noise; I cannot meet the eyes of my fellow theatregoers afterwards. I am not a monster! I am merely a casualty of this disease called sleep.
When a character slumbers in cinema, it typically occurs off-screen. It is elided, seen as immaterial; how many rom-coms fade to black at the post-coital moment before a new day begins, and the lovebirds are swaddled in sunrays as they bask in—or rue—the aftermath of their tryst? Sleep is regarded as an emptiness between two narrative points. It is a suspension of time and space where nothing meaningful can eventuate—or so the logic goes.
But intrigue emerges when sleep occurs in diegesis. In the absence of stimulus, sleep is admittedly tedious to view in real time. The filmmaker becomes complicit in our torpor: they may even dare us to surrender to their languorous tempo. Claire Denis’ Stars at Noon—a recent favourite—feels like somnambulism. In the film, the French auteur stages a military coup in Nicaragua at a simmering adagio; her wily journalist heroine (Margaret Qualley) lays akimbo across bed sheets soaked through with the humidity of high summer, napping and languishing with her new paramour (Joe Alwyn) even as they’re chased by hired guns. The first time I encounter Denis’ film, I fall asleep for a few moments before jolting awake in a full-body tremor. The motion repeats until I am sufficiently disoriented, beset with the same fever as Denis’ hapless subjects. Later, I proselytise the film’s virtues—how febrile, how seductive!—only to be called a liar.
I am returning, lately, to a quote from the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. “Sleeping and films,” he says, “are like twin realities.” The sentence comes from a behind-the-scenes featurette accompanying Cemetery of Splendour, Weerasethakul’s 2015 saga of sickness and sorcery tracing an epidemic of narcolepsy which plagues a regional outcrop of soldiers. We spend time by these soldiers’ bedsides in extended sequences which teeter between the sensual and the soporific; watching the men lie motionless is not unlike meditation. Weerasethakul knows it: in 2018, he exhibits an installation in Rotterdam titled SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL where guests stay overnight in a room aglow with projections intended to suffuse their dreams.
Only when we are deprived of sleep can we recognise its imperiousness—as is the case with Jessica (Tilda Swinton), the increasingly anguished protagonist of Weerasethakul’s most recent film, Memoria. She is tormented by a sourceless, shapeless sound—a bassy bang-thud loud enough to foreclose any shut-eye and yet audible only to Jessica, and to the audience. This is the rare film in which I am unable to fall asleep, haunted, as it were, by echoes of the whomp. It is a fearsome sound—the sound of a collision, the sound of an ending. The film eventually mellows: it retreats somewhere bucolic, gazing, without pause, at the sight of a man dozing in the grass. The scene provides an aspirational template: look at this man, so unburdened, so seamlessly slipping into utter repose. I watch and yearn for sweet surrender.