'You are now listening to my voice," says the narrator. The voice is that of actor Max von Sydow, dusky yet seductive, dark but altogether pleasant, mellifluous even. The film is Lars von Trier's Europa, from 1991. "I shall now count from one to 10," he continues. "On the count of 10, you will be in Europa."
And so he counts, his voice drawing the viewer deeper, deeper into Europa. It's as if von Sydow's hypnotic narration is luring us not only into the highly stylized world of von Trier's film – a world of conspiracy and intrigue in postwar Frankfurt – but into the movie itself. We are being seduced into a trance-like state, drawn deeper, deeper still, deeper into Europa.
The connection between movies and hypnosis is age-old. The namesake doctors of two early German Expressionist masterworks, Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Fritz Lang's Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler (1922), were both gifted hypnotists. Their ability to seize the minds of the sleepy and world-weary was a metaphor for cinema itself, and its capacity to beguile and seduce.
For his 1976 film Heart of Glass, Werner Herzog hypnotized his cast, in hopes that could access some deeper emotional world, and in turn more faithfully articulate the film's theme of subtle, collective madness. For the French philosopher and critic Roland Barthes, the very experience of movie-going – the flicker of the screen, the dark of the theatre itself – was both enthralling and erotic, enveloping the moviegoer in a "veritable cinematographic cocoon."
But what happens when the trance is too powerful? When the moviegoer, sunk into both her personal cocoon and that of the theatre, is lulled from half-wakefulness into straight-up sleep?
It's a question that came up early at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, when I overheard a fellow film writer expressing his admiration for the movies of Canadian director Guy Maddin, despite the fact that they often put him to sleep. Sure enough, as I cut out to the washroom midway through a press screening of Maddin and co-director Evan Johnson's The Forbidden Room, I caught the aforementioned critic comfortably asleep in his seat.
But what about sleeping during the movies we're not expected to attend to with such thoroughgoing professional rigour? Does falling asleep during a film necessarily speak negatively to the character of that film?
I don't think so. Not necessarily, anyway. Take for example Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Cemetery of Splendour, which screened in the Masters section at TIFF. Sleep is at the centre of Cemetery, which unfolds in and around a Thai army hospital in which comatose soldiers suffer from a form of terminal lethargy that sees them drifting in and out of a deep slumber.
The film's rhythms – typical of Weerasethakul's work – are similarly sleepy. The colour palette throbs hypnotically, the soundtrack backgrounds the quietude of the dewy forest, the shots are simply framed and unfold in long, unbroken sequences, the camera drifting through them. It's as if the film is replicating the languor of its sleeping soldiers. And Weerasethakul (or "Joe," as he's often called) seems to take snoozing during one of his films as something of a compliment. "I even encourage it," he tells fellow Globe TIFF correspondent Julia Cooper. "If you fall asleep it means you feel comfortable enough not to follow, and maybe it's better if you can wake up and continue to see it."
It's something of a cliché to describe films as "dream-like." It usually means that said film indulges in certain surrealist techniques that can be decoded, in the same way that the psychoanalytic practice of "dream work" is believed to unlock the unconscious mind. But films such as Cemetery of Splendour or The Forbidden Room don't replicate the content of dreams so much as they approximate the state of dreaming, and of sleep itself.
Snapping awake midway through one of Joe's or Maddin's cinematic reveries only strengthens this sensation, as the play of the imagination and that of the images onscreen blur together.
And for a viewer like me – whose relationship with what's commonly called a "good night's sleep" waffles between ambivalent and antagonistic, and who cherishes the restorative pleasure of a good catnap – catching a little siesta during a screening further fortifies the meditative experience.
Falling asleep during films such as these doesn't suggest their tedium so much as their effectiveness. Directors such as Weerasethakul and Maddin are modern-day Mabuses, equal parts artist and hypnotist. It's no surprise that their films are full of amnesiacs, mediums and ghosts – characters caught between planes of experience, wafting through the fog separating life and death, memory and dream.
You drift between wakefulness and somnolence, sucked in by the mesmerizing, languid rhythms lapping against the outsides of your eyelids. You're drawn deeper, deeper … deeper still, deeper into the cinema.