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David Jenkins

Somniloquies – first look review

The directors of Leviathan return with a breathtaking character study of the world’s foremost sleep talker.

This extraordinary new “documentary” (air quotes nessesary) from Verena Paravel and Lucien Castiang-Taylor slinks into the mind of musician Don McGregor who, prior to his passing in 1994, was considered to be one of the most prolific sleep talkers of the modern age. He was subject to scientific trials and his affliction became the focus of studies into nocturnal brain activity. But the directors purposefully offer no more context than that, as their film is one that invites (nay, demands) imposition and interpretation of the abstract sounds and images they offer up.

Handily, McGregor’s sleep monologues (or, somniloquies) were taped by his roommate during the 1960s, and they are played over scenes of warped, hazy bodies in a kind of ecstatic repose. It’s a deep sleep, as you can hear the blaring car horns from the street outside acting as a staccato rhythm section to his loquacious bleating. That’s all it is for 77 minutes. And it’s spellbinding.

The ways that the winding monologues have been specifically ordered means that the film zips across a broad spectrum of pent-up emotions, and McGregor’s intuitive warblings jackknife between bawdy comedy and doomed shrieking in an instant. And yet what he says is, for the most part, remarkably articulate. More articulate and amusing than some stand-up routines by waking comics, in fact. From the lightly posh, gravelly inflection of his voice, he sounds a lot like John Waters starlet, Divine, and in fact, much of what he says could feature in a Waters gross-out spectacular, or a particularly warped Robert Crumb comic strip.

The directors’ previous film, Leviathan, explored the microcosm of industrial fishing practices by capturing pure process with zero explanation. In many ways, this film plays the same game of cinematic hide and seek with the mystery of human sleep patterns, as it serves up a kind of extra-sensory audiovisual base material for the viewer to mould, shape and destroy at will.

It’s possible to build a character portrait of McGregor from what he says, as it reveals a lot about his erotic yearnings and unspoken peccadillos. But we don’t know whether he is unlocking secrets, or this is just an honest reflection of his real persona. Or whether it’s none of the above, and the things he talks about are just random, subconscious rants that happen to skirt on the obscene. We don’t even know for certain whether he’s actually asleep and that he and his room mate aren’t conducting a surreal ruse.

The range of subjects spoken about covers a community of midgets that you can hire out to replace your children, the “platinum bush” of a mysterious (and repeatedly mentioned) Mrs Dangerfield, a pair of giants who rape a woman in an ambulance, and some brash articulations that don’t appear to be in any known language. The bodies on screen form random configurations that Paravel and Castiang-Taylor turn into live-action Rorschach blots, needling the viewer’s own erotic subconscious in the process. The film looks like a Francis Bacon canvas come to life.

Despite its moody, capricious tone, Somniloquies is a joyous and affirmative work, one that’s fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of the human body and stands as an angular testament to the infinite depths of the psyche, and maybe even the soul.

Tags: Berlin Film Festival Lucien Castiang-Taylor Verena Paravel

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