“Sorry if it seems kind of cliché, but the French dig this kind of visual…and I dig the French”. These are the telling, if bizarre, words from The Perfect Sleep’s (2009) unnamed protagonist, moments after narrating a somewhat baffling prologue to the film’s events. Orchestrated by first-time director Jeremy Alter, the film can almost be forgiven for lapses in narrative continuity or descents into surrealism given Alter’s prior relations with a one David Lynch, having worked as co-producer of Lynch’s last film, Inland Empire (2006) and as location manager on 1997’s Lost Highway. The Lynchian connections run even deeper when you take into account that the film’s commendable screenplay was penned by another of Lost Highway’s location team (which ever-increasingly looks to have been a breeding ground for innovative new talent), scriptwriter Anton Pardoe, who in a roundabout-sort-of-way is also the film’s nameless lead. Confused yet? Fortunately for all involved, Pardoe’s mysterious ‘Mad Monk’ sets his stall out early on: “Some of you clever types might think this is the type of story that makes sense in the end…wrong!” Thankfully, the audience’s viewing experience is markedly improved by this frank admission of insanity.
The film’s basic premise sees Pardoe’s mystery man embark on a journey of revenge with Russian crime lord (and his supposed ‘father’ Nikolai [Patrick Bauchau]) sat at the top of a pyramid of psychopaths and murderers from his former life. He has only one commitment in the world of the living, his childhood friend Porphyria (Roselyn Sanchez) who he loves to the point of obsession, and devotes his life to her protection.
It is perhaps wisest (and simplest) to begin with where The Perfect Sleep succeeds. Both Alter and Pardoe’s backgrounds in location management are fully utilized, with a number of truly spectacular vistas and settings lifting the film above your run-of-the-mill gangster saga.
The turbine-filled desert (pictured) that the film opens up to is easily comparable with Chinatown’s (1974) iconic dam, a clear symbol of American post-war progression clashing with the sociological, traditional values of the 30’s and 40’s. Interestingly, The Perfect Sleep’s setting, both geographical and chronological, are ambiguous. Classical three-piece suits and tales of powerful, warring immigrant families are juxtaposed with night vision goggles and high-powered, modern sniper rifles to create a unique setting and tone very much its own.
In addition, any similarity to Robert Rodriquez’ over-indulgent, ‘Noir-Lite’ Sin City (2005) is fortunately restricted to the DVD’s box art, a clear (if misguided) attempt to pass the film off as something that it thankfully isn’t. The vital difference between the two films, excluding of course the more restrained, realist visuals of Alter’s effort, is in the script. Both films intentionally immerse themselves into the clichés and tropes of classic noir cinema, creating two distinct worlds populated by criminal organizations, gangsters, amoral detectives and femme fatales. However, only Pardoe’s script has the winning formula of self-referentially, absurdity and intrigue needed to avoid becoming merely a simplistic, parodical imitation.
Unfortunately, Pardoe’s intentionally scatter-brained script (described by actor Gary Oldman as “Film Noir on crack) at times teeters on the edge of inanity. Many of the film’s performers seem to struggle with the bizarre nature of their given character, with Tony Amendola’s constantly quipping, homicidal medic Dr Sebastian perhaps a step too far. Add to this the film’s hyperactive score by The Damned front man David Vanian (???), frantically interspersing piano melodies with all range of musical oddities, and you have a film that takes its audience to some extraordinary places, but more often than not forgets how it arrived there.
Commendable for its unique take on a seemingly exhausted genre, The Perfect Sleep ultimately leaves the viewer slightly confused and mentally fatigued and very much in need of forty winks to attempt to unravel what they have just witnessed.