Monday, 24 January 2011

Sleepless (2001)

Country: ITALY

Non ho sonno
I Can't Sleep

It’s no surprise at all that Dario Argento’s return to the giallo form in 2001 with Sleepless divided critics and fans. Within the context of Argento’s output at the time (don’t forget that the despised Phantom of the Opera [1998] directly preceded it) Sleepless has to be considered a semi return to form. But within the context of Argento’s career as a whole Sleepless is an unexceptional thriller. It was the first film since 1993’s Trauma that didn’t feature the minimal talents of his daughter Asia, and this is of immediate benefit to the film. Furthermore Argento was able to cast Max von Sydow as the retired detective Moretti. The screen presence of von Sydow adds immeasurable quality to the proceedings and is a vital aspect of the film, because the other performances (with the notable exception of Gabriele Lavia, who isn’t in the film anywhere near enough) are utterly abysmal. The screenplay was written by Argento in collaboration with Franco Ferrini and in many places shows plot ingenuity the likes of which had become rare in Argento’s cinema. But at the same time Sleepless abounds with the distant echoes of more creatively successful Argento films. Fortunately this self-referential quality never destabilises the film, as it might in lesser hands. But the realisation that this has all been seen and done before damages the films ability to stand on its own.

The film opens with the re-emergence of a murder case that was long considered closed. In 1983 a series of violent murders struck Turin - the peculiar modus operandi was seen as the work of Vincenzo de Fabritiis (Luca Fagioli) a dwarf who made a living writing cheap thrillers under the name John Mackenzie. The vertically challenged one was vilified and subsequently committed suicide despite protesting his innocence - and now some seventeen years later the distinctive features of the murders are resurrected by a suspected copycat. Instantly Argento sets up themes of history and age, of the repression of facts, of the fallibility of human memory, and of guilt. As the lead investigator of the time Moretti still has doubts as to the true perpetrator of the violent crimes, and comes out of retirement to salve the guilt that has haunted him for almost two decades. Moretti represents an old fashioned form of detective work and he is set up in opposition to modern methods reliant on computers and tele-communications. In two telling moments Argento illustrates his attitude to tradition and to technological modernity; the methodologies of both succeed in identifying the true killer. Moretti is assisted by the amateur sleuth Giacomo (the abysmal Stefano Dionisi) whose mother was the last victim of the ‘Dwarf Killer’ in 1983. In a disturbing flashback we see the young kid watch on impotently has his mother’s face is destroyed by a musical instrument.

Max von Sydow as the retired detective Moretti

After the 1983 prologue the film shifts to the present and an audacious double murder which becomes the set piece highlight of the film. Argento quickly establishes the killer’s deviancy in a scene in which a low rent whore refuses to take part in his obscene games. The acting here once again is utterly atrocious. But Argento makes up for this with some excellent camera work aboard a late night train - quite how the killer ends up locating the whore remains undisclosed however. Throughout the film Argento’s use of the tracking shot is excellent - over the rooftop of Vincenzo’s house, following the train, and perhaps most impressive of all a low angle tracking shot of a carpet which eventually leads to a scene of decapitation. Argento still at least illustrates a gift for distinctive camera work, and the violent set pieces resonate with energy and economy. For a film that runs to almost two hours Sleepless sweeps by effortlessly. The decision to have the killer follow a child’s nursery rhyme, and to leave paper cuts out at the scene of the crime is a stylish touch and continues the persistent referencing of childhood - a major clue as to the psychopath’s true identity. Halfway through the film does get bogged down in the complexity of its plot, but this is that ultra-rare modern Argento film that actually makes sense and feels satisfying as a story.

A novel use of a musical instrument!

Apart from the badly written dialogue, one misstep is the untimely demise of Moretti. With von Sydow out of the way, the film loses its emotional core. Moretti is denied the opportunity to face the real killer and bring him to justice, and I felt this was the very least the character deserved. The young actors offer very feeble support to the towering Swede, and were it not for the usual bag of stylistic tricks from the director Sleepless might have been a disaster. Although I like the film, it does come perilously close to falling into the vacuum of moronic mediocrity that beset Argento’s previous three films, but perhaps the director’s assurance in the giallo is what ultimately pulls it through. Although the film explores themes that have existed for decades in Argento’s cinema it doesn’t advance them in any way, and the result is the feeling that Argento is treading water. He is not stretching his talents, or pushing any boundaries. With Sleepless Argento was happy to cruise along in second gear, but he still manages to prove that when it comes to slick murder mysteries he is peerless.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. I was pretty unimpressed by this one as well. Mind you I think Argento's entire reputation rests on a handful of great movies made very early in his career.

  2. I couldn't agree more D. I'm of the view that Argento has always been a mediocre filmmaker. It was the collaborators he chose in the 1970's that are the main difference between then and now I think.

  3. I honestly dont even remember the film well enough to comment, one of the few Argento films I dont have in my personal collection yet since it is OOP in the States and I dont want to cough up the whole $10US for a used copy lol..


Related Posts with Thumbnails