Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 2
 Issue 12 
24 June

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Dario Argento's Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000) HORROR
Trains of thought
Dario Argento's Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000)

In this early analysis of Argento's latest giallo, Reynold Humphries praises Non ho sonno for its complexity of plot while finding fault with the director's uninspired direction and over-emphasis on gore. As he explains, Argento once more interestingly employs the distinctly Lacanian strategy of "leading us astray precisely by telling the truth."

Dario Argento's new movie, Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000), is a giallo and a particularly gory one. If I have the gravest reservations about the film's overall value, there is no doubt that the script is ingenious, carefully setting things up so that the spectators cannot feel let down or hoodwinked when the identity of the killer is revealed (which I shall not do, although this will not facilitate reviewing the film).

That there are elements in the script that seem laboured and unnecessarily confusing will be patent to anyone who has seen Non ho sonno, notably the role of the tramp Leone (Massimo Sarchielli) who—and this will not come as a great surprise to readers when they catch up with the film—is fooled into helping the killer unwittingly. It is only when putting the pieces together after the final revelations that we can appreciate just how Argento both exploits and discards Leone according to the effect he wants to create via the various very nasty murders. This turns on the character of the dwarf, whose presence haunts the film but who is in reality a red herring.

Dario Argento's Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000)The film is divided into two parts, each of which corresponds to a particular year: 1983 and 2000. Police Commissioner Moretti (played with understatement by Max von Sydow) consoles an adolescent whose mother has just been brutally murdered: it is only much later that we see her being stabbed repeatedly and graphically in the mouth with a musical instrument, an English horn. This murder and two others are laid at the door of a writer, the above-mentioned dwarf, whose fiction has the nasty habit of turning into fact and who commits suicide, thus "proving" his guilt.

Then, in the year 2000, the murders start up again and people start asking if it really was the dwarf, whether he did really commit suicide and if the unrecognisable body was just another victim, such as a child? It is here that Argento's manner of filming reveals perhaps the only genuine sign of talent (apart from the filming of murder, of which more presently).

Dario Argento's Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000)Any spectator capable of using his or her eyes can see that the murders are not committed by someone of less than normal size, although it could be argued that Argento does cheat when showing the first murder—which takes place in the present, in an unconvincingly empty train transporting the guard, the killer and the victim (a prostitute who has accidentally picked up a folder containing newspaper clippings of the earlier homicides and thus condemned herself to death)—by shooting from a low angle so as to throw us off-balance. This incites us to consider later, once the information about the dwarf has been given, that perhaps just such a person did the deed.

All the other murders, however, including that of one 1983 victim—attacked by someone of average height (as the use of the subjective camera placing us in the position of the murder makes clear) and thrown repeatedly against a wall until her skull is crushed—show that no dwarf was responsible. They tend to be derivative, although this does not rob them of their nastiness. One weapon, of course, is a large, sharp knife, ideal for lopping off fingers in close up, to the accompaniment of much blood and screaming.

Dario Argento's Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000)Occasionally, Argento indulges in filming the pursuit of the victim before she is duly dispatched, in one case concluding the murder scene with an explicit homage to Mario Bava's 1964 giallo Sei donne per l'assassino (Blood and Black Lace): the victim's corpse is thrown into a tub of water and floats there, sightless eyes staring upwards. The way the female victims are treated by the director smacks, however, of the worst sort of sadism and misogyny, encouraging the spectator—especially in the case of the second victim—to want them to perish, in order to see what method is going to be resorted to next. All this comes across as a modern Italian version of our old friend, the post-Halloween (1978) slasher movie.

Enigma variations

Dario Argento's Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000)Why, then, do I choose to praise Non ho sonno? Much of the film, after all, is made by a man who no longer cares about the subtleties of direction and the careful creation of situations likely to involve the spectator in something more valid than wanting to know who's going to get the chop next. It is as if Argento lavished much care on the script, then descended to the most dubious aspects of the slasher in order to give audiences what he thought they want.

We soon suspect that Leone the tramp is involved in some way because of the otherwise unnecessary importance accorded to his character, but Argento does not cheat in the sense of deliberately lying to the audience: what he does, and what I shall not reveal, is to give Leone a function in the killings that cannot possibly be guessed. Similarly with the character of the wealthy lawyer. His son is a close friend of the first murder victim's son who helps von Sydow carry out his investigation (an interesting parallel here with The Pledge [2000]: like Jack Nicholson in Penn's film, von Sydow promises he will not rest until the killer is found).

Dario Argento's Non ho sonno (Sleepless, 2000)We know that a most expensive pen has been found near the body of one victim (the prostitute's friend who finds the folder with the cuttings and therefore is condemned by the same logic). When it turns up as a murder weapon (a nod in the direction of Casino [1995], where Joe Pesci takes a pen to someone who has insulted De Niro), we are meant to suspect the unsympathetic lawyer because he has lost a pen. As it turns out, he is closely involved with the killings, but not in the way we imagined. Thus the film leads us astray precisely by telling the truth, one of Lacan's favourite ways of representing subjectivity and the Symbolic Order. An awareness of this dimension of subjectivity enables us to distinguish a carefully devised script from an all-too-often dubious realisation of its implications.

From that point of view, Non ho sonno is typical of the thriller, based on a series of enigmas which must add up to something retrospectively coherent for the spectator not to feel cheated: we have been systematically led up the garden path but never lied to. Even the fact that the victim of the first murder is shown lying on the floor tells us, looking back, something about the identity of the killer, as does the fact that the film opens in 1983 and then shifts to the present day: age is a crucial factor here. If only Argento were not so cynical about gore and the act of filming—proposing plenty of the former and too often indifferent to the latter when murder is not involved—as opposed to the structure of the plot, then Non ho sonno could have been more impressive. As things stand, it suggests the director is simply going through the motions.

Reynold Humphries

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Also of interest
About the author

Reynold Humphries is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Lille, France. He is the author of Fritz Lang: Genre and Representation in his American Films (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988) and the forthcoming The American Horror Film: An Introduction (Edinburgh University Press, 2002), as well as articles on Dracula's Daughter, David Cronenberg, and Michael Powell. He is preparing an essay on contemporary Hollywood and a study of the aesthetics and politics of films made by victims of the blacklist.

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