The second feature from writer-director Ena Sendijarević, Sweet dreamsfollows a recent trend of arthouse films, including Zama, settlers and The tale of the king crab — which explore Europe’s troubled colonial history through a postmodern blend of satire, surrealism, and cinematic lyricism.
All of these elements are present in a story set in 1900 in the Dutch East Indies, where a family running a prosperous sugar plantation sees their status quo upended when their patriarch suddenly passes away. Dealing with the consequences, the landowner’s wife and children quickly expose themselves to the limits, as well as the terrors of colonialism, in the face of indigenous peoples who refuse to bow down any longer.
The bottom line
More like colonial nightmares.
Shot in a 1.33:1 Academy ratio and divided into chapters like a novel, Sendijarević’s film maintains a certain distance from its subject, looking at it through a contemporary prism that criticizes the racism and exploitation of the time. Compared to the Indonesians, the Dutch characters are presented as grotesque caricatures, which makes Sweet dreams more of a black comedy than a drama at times.
The results aren’t always convincing, with the film’s mannered acting and heightened aesthetic keeping the viewer at arm’s length from any real emotion. But the director also shows a fine sense of craft and a deep understanding of the European biased attitudes of the time, where “inferior races” were seen simply as human tools for the accumulation of Western wealth.
Sendijarević’s story takes place at a time when the Dutch began to lose control over a vast territory they had controlled for a century (Indonesia finally declared its independence in August 1945, at the end of World War II). The demise of the colony is reflected in the sudden death of Jan (Hans Dagelet), a plantation owner whose sugar refinery allowed him to build a huge house in the jungle while he filled his family’s coffers in Holland.
Jan’s widow, Agathe (Renée Soutendijk), sends for her son, Cornelius (Florian Myjer), who soon turns up with his pregnant wife, Josefien (Lisa Zweerman), in tow. The newly married couple hope to sell the fields and refinery so they can quickly return to the old country, but there’s a problem: Jan fathered a second son, Karel (Rio Den Haas), with his loyal servant, Siti. (Hayati Azis), and has decided to leave the entirety of his estate to a young man who is equal parts Dutch and Indonesian, as a living illustration of the conflict that has plagued his land for so long.
Sendijarević has dual citizenship and hails from Bosnia and the Netherlands, a personal story that his first feature film, take me somewhere nicetransformed into a quirky European road movie that premiered at Cannes’ ACID sidebar in 2019. There’s still something of that quirkiness in Sweet dreamsthough he comes with a darker background that never shies away from the abuses committed by the late Jan and his surviving relatives.
In the film’s opening scene, the patriarch humiliates a field worker in front of Karel, then sleeps with Siti in a way that suggests an ongoing act of colonial rape. Later, Cornelius tries to kill his younger brother so he can keep the family fortune. He is propelled by a scheming wife who is constantly horny and overheated, her face covered in mosquito welts that accumulate as the film progresses.
None of the Dutch characters are worthy of redemption, and in that sense Sweet dreams it is largely a one-sided affair. The Indonesians, which also include Reza (Muhammad Khan), a braggart young worker on the verge of rebellion, are more lively and humorous, taunting their supervisors every chance they get and allowing the director to insert a few scenes from surreal beauty. in the middle of the madness
With its careful camera setups (courtesy of Emo Weemhoff) and studied sets (by Myrte Beltman), especially the dark wood interior of the family villa, the film seems to make a point, about the flagrant evils and troubled heritage of colonialism, more than tell a captivating story. In that sense, it’s a worthy addition to a subgenre of period pieces that have been on the festival circuit for some time, as emerging filmmakers confront historical trauma with horror and fascination.