TIFF 2023 | Sweet Dreams (Ena Sendijarević, Netherlands / Sweden / Indonesia / France) — Centrepiece

By James Lattimer

It’s never a bad time to bring up the mechanisms of colonialism, whether in the Netherlands or elsewhere, although one might wish for a less obvious conversation starter than Sweet Dreams. Ena Sendijarević’s period drama paints the casual brutality of life in the turn-of-the century Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia, with brush strokes broad enough to be more exasperating than edifying. Perhaps the most egregious example of this tendency is the central constellation of characters, which is built around Jan (Hans Dagelet), the aging, brutish, predictably patriarchal owner of a small sugar plantation, who duly has an intelligent, but cowed wife Agathe (Renée Soutendijk), a smouldering Indonesian housekeeper named Siti (Hayati Azis) who doubles up as his unwilling lover and a young son born of the latter (Rio Den Haas) who is invariably his pride and joy. When unrest among the plantation workers leads to Jan being poisoned, Agathe summons their son Cornelius (Florian Myjer) from the Netherlands with his pregnant wife Josefien (Lisa Zweerman), who are predictably shocked at the lack of civilization they encounter there and plan to wrap up matters as quickly as possible, a task that will prove more difficult than it sounds.

The steps towards the plantation’s inevitable downfall unfolds via dialogues that largely serve to affirm the clichéd construction of characters, who tend to articulate exactly what is necessary for the plot to move on and little more, often telegraphing subsequent plot twists along the way to boot; there is talk of poisoning Jan in one scene before he keels over in the very next one, while, as always, when a gun first appears, it’s just a question of who it will be fired at and when. The lavish production design might be better able to distract from such narrative obviousness if it weren’t so concerned with crafting slightly strained metaphorical images, such as the detail shot of an insect skewered by a fountain pan or one of the characters eventually disappearing under an ever-growing pile of sugar. For all the strident condemnation of the plantation and what it stands for contained within Sweet Dreams, the more interesting conversations are still the ones that start from more unexpected places.

jlattimer@cinema-scope.com Lattimer James