Roger Ebert once wrote that Tarkovsky’s films were “more like environments than entertainments”. He observed that the Russian filmmaker “uses length and depth to slow us down, to edge us out of the velocity of our lives, to enter a zone of reverie and meditation”. The same can be said about Scott Barley’s debut feature film Sleep Has Her House, probably to a greater extent, which avoids easy categorization and plays out more like a series of visions from a different time or glimpses from someone’s dreams. Shot on an iPhone, the film was produced, directed and edited all by Barley himself.
Sleep Has Her House transcends the realms of narrative filmmaking, completely re-inventing most spatial and temporal aspects of the medium and aims to rather transport the audience to a time and place far removed from anything we have experienced in our lives.
In a way, it is escapism but in a radically different shape and form. That isn’t to say that there’s complete absence of any narrative thread or causality. Even if on the outset the film feels like a string of static shots, there’s plenty of movement within the frames whether it be the howling wind or movement of light and shadow. The camera moves and makes its presence felt almost continually, panning across or zooming out of the landscapes ever-so-slowly so as to keep its motion inconspicuous. Sleep Has Her House isn’t really meant to appeal to the intellect as much as it is designed to stir something very primal within our subconscious, evoking that rare sense of wonder which accompanies our realization of the scale within which Mother Nature operates, and our insignificant existence within her grand scheme of things.
There’s no dialogue and no human beings which, along with the film’s atmosphere, seems to suggest it is set in a time period that’s either primordial or post-apocalyptic, or something completely detached from the timeline we exist in. Although the film begins serene and tranquil, very soon the world plunges in and out of darkness, as a sense of disintegration envelops the film through storms and lightning. This is where Barley’s soundscape really makes its mark, supplanting the calm aesthetic of the imagery with roaring thunder and lashing winds.
The cinematography is mostly bleak but very picturesque, with meticulous long shots reminiscent of Béla Tarr and Andrei Tarkovsky’s work ― although the final product is ultimately very different from their films.
Barley’s editing here is a thing of beauty and is something that I’d rank among the very best I’ve ever seen. The astounding fluidity of the cuts and dissolves itself gets half the job done as the frames literally morph into one another, painting a strange reality where matter itself seems to dissolve away across time. Sometimes it becomes nearly impossible to notice the transitions, as gradual and graceful as they are. The very heart of Sleep Has Her House lies in its continual push-pull between cinematic abstraction and photographic realism, taking ordinary elements of nature and painting them in extraordinary overtones – sometimes almost sublime and sometimes nearly frightening, but always retaining their hypnotic quality. The final scene features a prolonged unforgettable play of light and sound, one that simultaneously encapsulates and elevates the oneiric experience so far, which I won’t ruin by attempting to describe it any further.
Sleep Has Her House is one of those films that absolutely deserves to be seen at a great theatre. Can only imagine what it would be like to experience this on a 50-foot screen, shrouded by darkness and quiet, with booming audio from an Atmos setup. But until then, find yourself a dark room and experience this in complete silence.
When not watching films or TV series, Shaswata can usually be found either reviewing them or battling writer’s block. His obsession lies with framing and composition in cinema, something he explores by capturing the most memorable moments through screenshots and sharing them on social media.