Chicago Film Fest 2023: Ena Sendijarević’s “Sweet Dreams” Gives a Tasteful Candy Coating to a Bitter History

“I told you the normal rules don’t apply here, Cornelis (Florian Myjer) tells his wife Josefien (Lisa Zweerman) in “Sweet Dreams,” as she learns that his father Jan had a son by his servant Siti (Hayati Azis) and that after the patriarch has passed, Siti and the young Karel (Rio Kai Den Haas) are still living under the same roof as Jan’s widow Agathe (Renée Soutendijk) and everyone seems more cool with the arrangement than one might think. It’s Josefien’s first time in the Dutch East Indies circa 1900 where Cornelis is forced to return for his father’s funeral or risk having his allowance from Agathe cut off, a considerable fortune when his father presided over a sugar plantation, and the two will need the money with a baby on the way, but even so, it’s an adjustment for the outsider who beyond the balmy weather and bloated belly sweats it out for other reasons entirely in Ena Sendijarević’s savage satire.

After the amusing outsider tale “Take Me Somewhere Nice” in which the writer/director followed a young woman back to Bosnia to meet the father she never knew being raised in the Netherlands, Sendijarević envisions the family compound that Josefien enters as a bit of a chessboard in the wake of Jan’s death, complete with a black-and-white tile corridor, though all but a few are playing checkers. Jan remains an intractable presences in the house, particularly when Agathe was loathe to lay hands on the corpse and let it rot in the basement, leaving an awful stench for Cornelis to come deal with when he and Josefien arrive in their carriage from afar. Any notion of class you might have about the family from their finely tailored clothes or palatial estate is quickly disabused as you see them treat one another no differently than the mosquitoes they’re frequently swatting away in the sweltering heat. As the filmmaker keenly observes, there’s actually more meaningful relationships between the family members and their help, the Indonesian workers they’ve come to rely on after colonizing the territory and while Karel is a living reminder of the two cultures’ uneasy coexistence, Siti can be seen appreciate the comforts of routine before even thinking about questioning why she continues to put the family’s needs above her own as it becomes clear the hierarchy has completely fallen apart.

Within a square Academy ratio frame, Sendijarević and cinematographer Emo Weemhoff craft images so beautiful they’re unnerving as if they’re the last bit of artifice that the family can put up to hide the dysfunction within and composer Martial Foe is apt to add anachronistic instrumentation to shake up anything that might come across as remotely classical. Naturally, there is old fashioned drama in what’s to become of Jan’s wealth when his will suggests a surprising heir, yet Sendijarević doesn’t only ask her characters to consider themselves anew in having to wonder about what he thought of them, but also puts a different spin on how one sees them and the rampant dissatisfaction that must be felt by all in a colonial society such as this, particularly Cornelis, who feels his masculinity is tested by his heretofore unknown younger brother whom his father clearly preferred, and Josefien, who might’ve questioned it herself a few times when she finds it impossible to quell the raging hormones brought about by her pregnancy. If they’re looking for sympathy, they won’t find it in “Sweet Dreams” where the sugar production comes to reflect systemic rot, but any bitterness amongst the well-heeled family is deliciously tart in Sendijarević’s view, bringing an egregious history up to date for a proper reckoning.

“Sweet Dreams” will screen again at the Chicago Film Festival on October 19th at at 5 pm at AMC New City, Screen 4.

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