Cemetery of Splendour is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest movie (I deserve no praise, I copied his name from Google). At first glance, it doesn’t seem to be as strange, poetic and sensorial an experience as were his three previous films ; it’s even vaguely based on a true story. In 2012, in Northern Thailand, 40 soldiers were hospitalized for a mysterious sleeping sickness. The movie uses this as a starting point: a group of deeply asleep soldiers is transferred to a small, remote hospital. Jenjira volunteers there and starts looking after Itt, a young man who never gets any visit. She also befriends Keng, a young psychic who helps families get in touch with the patients.
Why not as strange? Because we’re neck deep in Thai culture, where advanced modernity is always soaked with magic and where it’s not a matter of believing but living day-to-day with invisible realms. When two women sit with her and claim they’re princesses from the temple and the soldiers won’t ever get better, there’s no reason for Jenjira – or us – to doubt them. When the soldiers’ parents ask the psychich what they want to eat and she answers with a salad, a bamboo shoot soup and a coke, no one questions her words or abilities.
The most interesting thing in the movie is the porosity between magic and ordinary life, typical of this culture, highlighted and amplified in Weerasethakul’s tale. He also blurs the lines between dreams and reality, being asleep and being awake. All that without any grand, lyrical gesture, without a sacred or mysterious feeling, but even with great triviality (yes, you see someone poop). Some might only see one boring sequence after another, with images that never transcend the story.
Others, like me, will live a unique, almost mystical experience. I attended the first screening of the day with all the impetuosity of youth, convinced that my sheer will could beat both the early hour and a short night of sleep. I nevertheless dozed off for a few seconds several times during the movie. Normally it would be to my great shame and I would never admit it. I’ve seen more than enough to be able to discuss the movie, but this kind of confession prompts other people to not take you seriously. Here I feel obligateed to report this unfortunate event, because it actually allowed me to experience a very intense cinematic moment. As stated above, the film plays with the idea that dreams, reality and magic all coexist on the same level. When you unwillingly fall asleep in a movie theater, your brain, to get around your vigilance, often creates its own mental images and lets you think you’re still watching the movie even when you started dreaming. In front of this specific movie, this experience is that much more interesting because it adds one filter to our perception.
I don’t think this game with the viewer is a total coincidence. At one moment, two characters find themselves in a movie theater, watching the trailer for a very weird and unlikely Thai film. It is filmed in a way that gives the impression you’re in the row right behind them. Through this poetic mise en abyme, you’re involved in the pictures and story. And since you were already hesitating between the tangibility of the room, the movie and your dreams, your senses end up completely upside down.
For too long has sleeping at the movies been considered as an obvious demonstration of boredom, a testimony to the director’s failure, the concrete proof that a movie is not good enough to captivate your mind. Maybe it’s time to reverse this opinion, slumber being the most effective way to forget you’re just a body in a seat and to give you the magical impression you’re one with the pictures. When as talented a man as Weerasethakul plays with these boundaries, it’s ecstasy. It works even better because you never face really unsettling images that would definitely drag you into fantasy, the magic is only reported in the dialogs. The real strangeness comes from the pact you seal with the movie and its characters, that you’ll believe and take for granted everything they say without ever calling it into question. Thus, you never completely break with reality… And Apichatpong Weerasethakul tests in a very innovative way our reality but also that of cinema.
After this manifesto for closing your eyes at the movies, we have to check if this experience is specific to Cemetery of Splendour or if it can be recaptured in other major movies about sleep, such as:
Sleeping Beauty by Julia Leigh
The Science of Sleep by Michel Gondry
Sleep by Andy Warhol
Mulholland Drive by David Lynch
or Paris qui dort (The Crazy Ray), René Clair’s first short movie.