The Perfect Sleep

The Perfect Sleep

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

With their feature debut, Jeremy Alter and Anton Pardoe resume the respective roles – director and writer/star – that they assumed in their first (and only) short The Godson (1999), but they are better known in Hollywood for scouting and managing the locations of titles as varied as Lost Highway (1997), The Million Dollar Hotel (2000), Sideways (2004), The Number 23 (2007) and Brüno (2009). Unsurprising, then, that location plays such a pivotal part in The Perfect Sleep too.

It opens with the protagonist (Pardoe) commenting, in his hypnotically lazy drawl, on the choice of a field of power-generating windmills as the setting for the first scene: "I know – I know what you're thinking. Not the first to use it. But with a visual like this, what does it matter?" This overtly self-conscious approach to story-telling will continue throughout the film, as this world-weary anti-hero – never named and called simply 'the Narrator' in the closing credits – repeatedly comments on the narrative form he controls, both modulating and confounding our horizon of expectations.

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"Say, nice shot," he says of one particularly Melvillean image of himself in shadowy profile (and fedora). "Sorry if it seems kinda clichéd, but the French dig this kind of thing - and I dig the French." On another occasion he apostrophises and admonishes the viewer: "Some of you clever types might think this is the kind of story where it all makes sense in the end. Wrong." Or again, when surrounded by an army of goons, his voice-over comments: "These B-movie mongrels don't belong here."

Such meta-cinematic reflexes are of a piece with the film's recognisable L.A. locations. For while the town where the film's action takes place is never named, it is clearly the epicentre not only of neo-noir, but of cinema itself. The very name of The Perfect Sleep, with its play on Raymond Chandler's best known and most filmed title, promises noir – and the film certainly delivers on that, with its narrating agent, its femme fatale, its murky morality, its labyrinthine plotting and its underworld setting.

Yet in taunting us with the words, "you probably think this is one of those stories, a study of the shadows, dark and dirty and utterly amoral", the Narrator suggests the possibility that this is not, in fact, noir, at least as we know it – and sure enough, the film is also expressly aligned with the great Russian novels, Cervantes' Quixote, the fairytale, Shakespearean tragedy, Freudian perversion, game-playing (both chess and first-person shooters), brutal martial artistry and Lynchian dissociations. It is, depending upon your point of view, an impressively impenetrable edifice of allusions, enigmas and overdetermination - or else just a mismatched mess of stylistic tics and gestures.

There is a story here, and it is an ancient one, involving ghosts from the past, forbidden love, twisted family feuds and murderous revenge – but despite the Narrator's veritable addiction to the activity for which he has been named, his relentless exposition still leaves plenty of room for ambiguity. After a 10-year absence, our haunted protagonist returns to town with a death wish - that might already have been fulfilled. He is still tormented by his adoration of the married Porphyria (Roselyn Sanchez) - who might be his sister. He is doggedly pursued by his stepbrother the Rajah (Sam Thakur) for a crime he supposedly did not commit - but easily might have. And he cuts a bloody path through hordes of hired killers to get a one-to-one with knife-wielding kingpin Nikolai (Patrick Bauchau) – who might just be his father.

Everyone knows what 'the perfect sleep' really is, and accordingly the film explores many of death's faces and forms. Despite sporting multiple, near-fatal scars in a 'tapestry of pain', the Narrator has earned the nickname 'Mad Monk' for his Rasputin-like inability to die - while his sometime associate Dr Sebastian (a show-stealing Tony Amendola) likes nothing more than describing to his dying victims the precise stages of their passing, in language now anatomical, now Shakespearean. Yet for all his obsession with his own demise, our Hamlet-like hero seems dead on arrival, and there are several hints (if no more) that the entire narrative is a fading man's fantasy, à la Point Blank (1967), of wrongs avenged and love reaffirmed – even if it is too late for either.

Near the end of The Perfect Sleep, the Narrator pauses to tell the story of the building in which the bloody climax will take place. It is a magnificently baroque structure, built by a virtual nobody who would expend all his creative genius on the project, and never produce anything as remarkable again. This points, like the opening of The Perfect Sleep, to the filmmakers' personal interest in location – an interest which brings all kinds of aesthetic rewards - but it is also, one suspects, a reflection upon their own cinematic creation. For this film, too, is an overwrought, eccentric folly, surely never to be repeated, but truly amazing to behold.

The most pervasive element of The Perfect Sleep, Pardoe's half-whispered narration, is also what is most likely to grate with many viewers. Self-aware, self-pitying, even self-indulgent, its soporific monotone reduces everything on-screen to an (anguished variety of) irony that precludes any kind of emotional engagement with the characters and their convoluted tale.

But then all this seems only to add another layer of alienating affectation to a film whose every exquisitely framed image and jazz-inflected sound, every mannered performance and verbal artifice, is pure surface sheen, there to seduce viewers into depths of their own making, to stave off, however temporarily, the inevitable end that comes to us all. That might not strictly be novel, or original, or even entertaining – but it cuts to something quintessential about cinema, as if to say: with visuals like these, what does it matter?

Reviewed on: 28 Jul 2010
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The Perfect Sleep packshot
An assassin returns to a city of his past to try to rescue a lost love.
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