Sara Driver’s Sleepwalk ends at a curious impasse: Two key characters pass like ships in the night before settling into separate, oppositely composed shots, one defiantly asleep beneath the Brooklyn bridge, the other blindfolded beneath the Manhattan. It’s a strange conclusion, but the perfect one for this loopy 78-minute reverie, which feasts alternately on the picture-postcard New York skyline and twinkling glimmers of downtown idiosyncrasy. Set in a mostly nocturnal lower Manhattan, the film is both a lucid evocation of place and a fantastical freeform trance, connected by an escalating series of bizarre incidents.
Most visibly, Sleepwalk is a story of inter-textual synchronicity, of ideas and gestures bleeding from one medium to another, from book to film, from film to life, and then back again. This synchronicity, and the ensuing mood it evokes, is the film’s real focus, which leaves the modern-Chinese fairy-tale trappings it initially teases at developing as a dangling thread, a mystical dim sum platter that ends up getting cold on the table. The plot seems to exist only for Driver to summarily dispose of it, more concerned with the textural details of chance peculiarities: a bloody finger, a faulty elevator, the smell of almonds wafting in from somewhere. These anecdotal moments are loosely plotted, like points on a graph, and definite pride is taken in not connecting them.
Generally unclassifiable, Sleepwalk has been labeled a No Wave project, but it falls more in line with what Jonathan Rosenbaum labels “fantastique,” and it bears the mark of its influences proudly, from black-and-white-inspired shadows to the playful mood of Jacques Rivette’s similarly jangly fugues. Then there’s Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, which came out the year before and shares a similarly entrancing view of New York: by day a prison for jaded wage slaves, by night a wonderland where anything can happen. The resulting portrait is of a city that’s as beautifully impenetrable as an ancient Chinese scroll.
With its prizing of fleeting moments of transcendence over a concrete narrative, the film also recalls André Breton’s Nadja, which offered a similar paean to 1920s Paris. A prevailing sense of surrealism pervades, from a businessman barking like a dog to one character’s sudden baldness, and Driver takes care to preserve the realness needed to make such flights of fancy convincing, keeping one foot in fantasy, the other in the everyday. This all culminates with the perplexing ending, as insolently anticlimactic of a gesture as the celluloid melt of Two-Lane Blacktop, signaling a final surrender to the dream state that’s been lurking around the film’s edges.
It’s worth noting that, with less expert handling, Sleepwalk might seem aimless and preposterous. But the collusion of routinely fantastic lighting (razor-divided two-tone compositions and eerie double shadows abound), marvelous camera work (by a young Jim Jarmusch), and impeccable set design grants higher production value than might be expected. Such concrete fundamentals are important in a work that’s so focused on the emotive power of objects, finding simple poetry in a floor strewn with almonds, a parrot on a leash, an empty room where a bare bulb swings in the wind. Phones are always ringing in Sleepwalk, but they’re never answered; there’s no room for more intrusions in a film with so many elements already in play.
Film Comment Selects 2012 ran from February 17—March 1.