‘Sweet Dreams’ Review: A Surreal Satire Exploring Dutch Colonialism in Indonesia

‘Sweet Dreams’ Review: A Surreal Satire Exploring Dutch Colonialism in Indonesia

Writer-director Ena Sendijarević’s second feature, Sweet Dreams, follows a recent trend of arthouse films — including Zama, The Settlers and The Tale of King Crab — that explore Europe’s troubled colonial history through a postmodern mix 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 finds its status quo upended when their patriarch suddenly passes away. Left to deal with the fallout, the landowner’s wife and children are quickly exposed to the limits, as well as the terrors, of colonialism, in the face of Indigenous people who refuse to keep bowing down.

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Sweet Dreams

The Bottom Line

More like colonial nightmares.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Renée Soutendijk, Hayati Azis, Lisa Zweerman, Florian Myjer, Muhammad Khan, Hans Dagalet, Rio Den Haas
Director, screenwriter: Ena Sendijarević

1 hour 38 minutes

Shot in the 1.33:1 Academy ratio and divided into chapters like a novella, Sendijarević’s movie maintains a certain distance from its subject, gazing at it through a contemporary prism that critiques the racism and exploitation of the epoch. Compared to the Indonesians, the Dutch characters are presented as grotesque caricatures, which makes Sweet Dreams more of a dark comedy than a drama at times.  

The results aren’t always convincing, with the film’s mannered acting and heightened aesthetics keeping the viewer at arm’s length from any real emotion. But the director also displays a fine sense of craft and a deep understanding of the skewed European attitudes of the period, where the “inferior races” were merely seen as human tools for the accumulation of Western wealth.

Sendijarević’s story takes place at a moment when the Dutch began to lose their grip on a vast territory they had controlled for a century (Indonesia finally declared independence in August 1945, at the end of WWII). The colony’s demise is reflected by the sudden death of Jan (Hans Dagelet), a plantation owner whose sugar refinery allowed him to build a massive house in the jungle while filling his family’s coffers back home in the Netherlands.

Jan’s widow, Agathe (Renée Soutendijk), sends for their son, Cornelius (Florian Myjer), who soon shows up with his pregnant wife, Josefien (Lisa Zweerman), in tow. The recently married couple is hoping to sell off the fields and refinery so they can make a quick break back to the old country, but there’s a catch: Jan sired a second child, Karel (Rio Den Haas), with his loyal servant, Siti (Hayati Azis), and he’s decided to leave the entirety of his estate to a young boy who is equal parts Dutch and Indonesian — like a living, breathing illustration of the conflict that has plagued his land for so long.

Sendijarević is herself a dual national hailing from Bosnia and the Netherlands — a personal history that her first feature, Take Me Somewhere Nice, transformed into a quirky European road movie that premiered in Cannes’ ACID sidebar back in 2019. There’s still some of that quirk in Sweet Dreams, although it comes with a darker undercurrent that never shies away from the abuses committed by the late Jan and his surviving kin.

In the film’s very first scene, the patriarch humiliates a fieldworker in front of Karel, then sleeps with Siti in a manner that suggests an ongoing act of colonial rape. Later, Cornelius tries to kill his younger brother so he can keep the family fortune for himself. He’s prompted by a conniving wife who’s constantly horny and overheated, her face covered with mosquito welts that accumulate as the movie progresses.

None of the Dutch characters are worthy of redemption, and in that sense Sweet Dreams is very much a one-sided affair. The Indonesians, who also include Reza (Muhammad Khan), a swaggering young laborer on the verge of rebellion, are more lively and filled with humor, mocking their overseers whenever they get the chance and allowing the director to insert a few scenes of surreal beauty amid the madness.

With its careful camera setups (courtesy of Emo Weemhoff) and studied décors (by Myrte Beltman), especially the darkly wooded interior of the family villa, the film seems to be illustrating a point — about colonialism’s glaring evils and troubled heritage — more than telling a captivating story. In that sense, it’s a worthy addition to a subgenre of period pieces that have been playing the festival circuit for some time now, as emerging filmmakers confront historic traumas with both horror and fascination.