Sleep deprivation is a dangerous thing. One night’s bad sleep can increase mood instability, decrease impulse control, reduce the immune system’s efficiency, and impair memory. Knowing its impact on the brain, it’s no wonder that sleep deprivation is utilized as a method of torture. It is this method of torture that we see utilized against Mila in Pavel Khvaleev‘s SLEEPLESS BEAUTY. While the acting, camera work, and visuals propped up the film, the overall story itself and the lack of character development delivered more questions than answers.
The film is directed by Pavel Khvaleev and is written by Aleksandra Khvaleeva. The film stars Polina Davydova. In SLEEPLESS BEAUTY, we see Mila (Polina Davydova) abducted by a mysterious organization called Recreation. Chosen perhaps due to her lack of relations to family or friends, Mila is faced with a dilemma upon waking up in a seemingly abandoned warehouse. Over a loudspeaker, she is informed of the rules that she must abide by in order to make it through whatever this ordeal is going to entail. She cannot sleep. She must follow all tasks put before her if she wants to survive. Unbeknownst to her, everything that is happening to her is being broadcast in a secret chatroom for their own sick entertainment while Recreation themselves observe the progress of their experiments. Whether or not this experiment was successful, well, you’ll have to watch the film.
While SLEEPLESS BEAUTY wastes no time setting up what appears to be the catalyst for Mila’s abduction (a failed assassination attempt), the bulk of the film centers around the hope-draining torture of this random human being. The rules that Mila has to follow (not sleeping) lacks follow-through. Like with other elements of the film, we are left to figure out for ourselves and fill in the blanks as to how she is being kept awake. Narratively, this can only frustrate the viewer while they are trying to slog their way through this addition to the torture porn genre.
While Mila is being tortured, though, there are side bits that attempt to fill in the blanks. As you may have gathered, this is a theme for SLEEPLESS BEAUTY. Her father is looking for her (despite the fact that no one in the family knows anything about Mila’s life apparently). There is tension between an ambassador and his ex-wife. However, none of these side bits along with the general lack of character development provided for Mila answers the single most important question – why should we as a viewer care about what is going on? And, by the end of the movie, this question, along with several others, is never answered.
Despite the general weakness and lack of originality in the script, SLEEPLESS BEAUTY is held together by the acting delivered by Polina Davydova. While the English dub leaves a lot to be desired (which I have found is a common issue), no one can deny that Davydova’s portrayal of Mila keeps us at least watching her. In the particularly brutal torture moments, Davydova acts the hell out of them. Paired against the nameless mask-wearing torturer (Evgeniy Gagarin), it makes it easy to focus intently on the performance she is giving. With that said, her acting cannot save what is an incredibly frustrating watch.
Where the film itself works is when it really leans into the more psychologically scarring elements of torture and in showcasing what Mila is actually seeing in the VR. What turned out to be the best torture scenario of SLEEPLESS BEAUTY is when Mila encounters her first task by Recreation. Taunted by a child-like voice over an abortion she may or may not have received (it is never answered in the film), Mila endures a variety of slutshaming taunts before she is told to dig through a bucket of organs. This torture tactic feels personalized to Mila and helps inform the viewer learn more about the character in the process. Unfortunately, the bulk of the torture scenes after this point are de-personalized. We don’t learn much further beyond that and, had Khvaleeva focused more on personalizing the torture specifically for Mila, it would have added much needed character development to the script.
As I stated in the previous paragraph, tying into the hallucinations and the VR set-up Mila is forced to watch as part of her indoctrinating conditioning is a chance where we can see potential in SLEEPLESS BEAUTY. The animation sequence we see is so grotesque and beautiful, creating a sinking feeling in your stomach as you watch the horrendous monsters play out in front of Mila’s eyes. Honestly, this was a major highlight in the film. While out of place with its implicit surrealism when compared to the rest of the film’s visuals, it was a standout.
Ultimately, SLEEPLESS BEAUTY is a vexing watch. There are numerous questions that arise while watching this film that, unfortunately, are not answered. What is the team behind this film going for? As a viewer, why should we invest in Mila as a character? The obvious answer is that we should care as human beings if we were emphatic but, from a clinical perspective, there is no identifying reason made by either Khvaleev or Khvaleeva about why we should care about what happens to the main character onscreen. Honestly, I’d say spare yourself the frustration that I still feel a week later after watching this, and just find something else to watch.
SLEEPLESS BEAUTY is now available on VOD + Digital platforms and will be available on Blu-ray beginning Tuesday, November 17, 2020. To pre-order the Blu-ray, go here.