Set in the year 1900 on a sugar plantation in Indonesia, “Sweet Dreams” is a period movie about palace intrigue and the ill effects of Dutch colonialism. But as directed by the sharp, imaginative Ena Sendijarević (2019’s “Take Me Somewhere Nice”), the film is a surprisingly twisted delight, much more than a serious lecture about bad behavior in a pretty place.
Acclaimed on the film festival circuit, and in Dutch theaters, the movie is the 2023 International Feature Oscar selection from the Netherlands. The country has won three times in the category, but not since 1997 with the historical drama “Character.”
“When it comes to taste, I feel that you can alienate in a certain way by presenting things that are just beautiful,” Sendijarević said during TheWrap’s Screening Series Q&A for the film. “We wanted to embrace the sweat and pores, things that are human-like, and to bring the whole atmosphere closer and make it feel more like a fever dream. That was very important indeed.”
A great part of Sendijarević’s style as a filmmaker includes her visual wit. When “Sweet Dreams” begins, the audience is clued within minutes to the film’s sense of sarcasm and devilish humor. When we first see the plantation’s Dutch matriarch (Renée Soutendijk), her eyes are closed with eyeballs painted on her lids. Early on, we view a scene from inside the open mouth of a felled tiger.
“I love cinema that surprises you,” the director said. “I love to watch films where I don’t have any idea where I’m gonna go next. Not only in terms of story but in terms of shots. I really love to watch films where every shot is a universe of its own and tells its own story. That’s really what we were going for when we made this film with the whole team. That was our goal – to have every shot tell a story.”
Sendijarević also borrowed a device from novels by including inventive chapter headings throughout the film.
“Cinema is an art form that borrows from other art forms,” she said. “Literature and painting are some of them. So with the chapter headings that was a bit of a wink to the relationship that cinema has with literature.”
Also in the full interview, Sendijarević elaborated on working with her cast; filming the movie on Reunion Island, a French colony off the coast of Madagascar; and the title of her movie, which was not a callback to a certain popular ’80s tune.
“I do know the song ‘Sweet Dreams’ by Annie Lennox (and the Eurythmics) very well. I mean, who doesn’t? It’s such a famous song and I love it,” she said. “But the title has to do with this question of who’s asleep and who’s awake. Is this a dream that we are in within the film or a certain kind of nightmare? There are a lot of scenes in bedrooms. And the film takes place on a sugar plantation and sugar has a big role in the end of the film.”
For the full conversation with “Sweet Dreams” director Ena Sendijarević, click here.