Criterion Review: Dreams


Rarely in cinema has the raw personal and symbolic power of dreaming been so effectively captured as in the Akira Kurosawa’s 1990 feature Dreams. A series of vignettes connected through theme and mood rather than narrative, Kurosawa’s late film beautifully evokes the short and often baffling nature of dreaming, locating his characters in the middle of scenarios with little context or explanation. As you’d expect from the director of Ran and Throne of Blood, Dreams is staggeringly gorgeous throughout.

Combining monochromatic and colour photography to evoke a distinctive and heightened reality, each vignette is gorgeous in its own right, but the stand out piece is surely the mid-section dream, taking place largely within Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings. A combination of green screen effects, intense colour timing and ingenious sets put the lie to the notion that special effects are the enemy of cinema; the first shot of the dreamer’s gaze as he finds himself inside Van Gogh’s The Langlois Bridge at Arles with Women Washing is so masterfully recreated as to make the viewer wonder whether they are looking at reality, a painting or something in between. Not since Méliès has the magic of cinema been so perfectly rendered in one image.

This magic is tempered with that other quality dreams have: of starkly manifesting our fears and neuroses into horrible reality. The subtextual shame of the opening dream, where a little boy (Mitsunori Isaki) eavesdrops on a sacrosanct, fantastical rite of nature is later borne out in the nightmare of a post- apocalyptic hellscape, a post-Hiroshima vision which in the present political climate feels harrowingly prescient. The theme of nature runs throughout Dreams, with the consequences of disrespecting the natural world forming a meta-narrative across the vignettes.

The final sequence, where an elderly villager lectures a young traveller on the excesses of modern life, edges a little too close to pastoral sentimentality, but after the two nightmares that precede it, it’s an undeniably welcome reprise, and only a true cynic could deny the appeal of this idealised harmony between humanity and nature. Once again Kurosawa proves himself a true genius of cinema, a magician whose mastery of his medium is matched only by his film’s effortless execution.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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