Experimental Reviews

Saturation (2019) – 4 stars

Director: Perrine Liévois

Writers: Perrine Liévois

Cast: Sibylle Liévois, Marie Beaumont, Fabrice Milioni, Babeth Fovet, Catherine Ferré, Joël Grimaud, Hadrien don Fayel

Running time: 30mins

The average person will spend 229,961 hours, or one-third of their lifetime, asleep. Far from that being wasted time, however, sleep plays a vital role in our waking lives, allowing our brains to form new pathways and process information; aiding memory and learning, bolstering our attention spans and creativity, and supporting decision-making. Increasingly, sleep also provides us with a much needed escape from the screaming sensory overload of everyday life in the digital age.

The invasive bombast of the ‘smart’ era means that even if we ignore our mobile phones, moving images and ad jingles wage war on our senses on every step of our daily routine, as the vulgar ‘interconnectivity’ of late capitalism means even in our most private spaces we are not safe from something assaulting us with some kind of ‘informative message.’ Is it any wonder then, that insomnia has become one of the things we dread most in 21st century life?

Roughly one-in-three people have at least mild insomnia, or have developed poor sleeping habits. In either case, taking sleeping pills is not a long-term solution; meaning that for a growing number of people, the one last place where they can drown out the endless noise is slipping from their grasp.

Fittingly, then, Saturation – Perrine Liévois’ intense and unnerving ode to sleeplessness – is imbued with an endless sense of frustration, fury and fear in equal measures. Like any good horror film, it will leave you panicking that its events could somehow happen to you; only perhaps this is worse as the concern we are left with from Saturation cannot simply be offset by a quick glance over the shoulder.

Throughout this abstract 30 minute piece, Liévois and Director of Cinematography Hadrien don Fayel conjure up a disturbing image of the world. The duo play with perspective ceaselessly, meaning that the misshapen, lopsided edges of modern tower blocks and their shadowy interiors – presented entirely in black and white – are unmistakably recognisable features from our everyday lives, but this familiarity seems to have been filtered through the imaginations of Robert Wiene and Willy Hameister, making the setting of the film feel like something from a half-remembered nightmare.

Also seeming to have shambled directly out of the frames of German expressionist cinema is our bleary-eyed lead, Emma (Sibylle Liévois). Like many of the players in Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari ­– a film fittingly about a somnambulist – Emma’s eyelids are inescapably caked in jet-black eye-shadow. As her condition worsens, the eye-shadow seemingly thickens, to the point where when Emma tries to wash it off in the bath, the water visibly darkens – but the make-up remains almost unmoved.

Sadly, Emma’s loved ones are less than understanding of her worsening condition, which is repeatedly painted as being born of her own conceit. As Emma sinks from view both figuratively and literally, her boyfriend Amien (Hadrien don Fayal) attempts to bring her out of her downward spiral by springing a surprise party on her. Much to his irritation, the ceaselessly busy event leaves her exhausted, and fading away even faster than before.

To say Emma simply too self-obsessed to tune out and sleep misses the point entirely. Like any form of anxiety, coping takes much more than ‘trying hard enough,’ something which Saturation does good work in helping audiences to understand. The moment she closes her eyes, Emma is tormented by a bottomless reservoir of visuals, voices and vibrations – every creak of the house’s floorboards, every rustle of the blankets seems to trigger a twitching membrane of thoughts and feelings that our unfortunate protagonist cannot silence. And we feel it too.

One of the film’s greatest successes is that by the end of its half-hour run-time, viewers will feel as though they too have endured a restless night. Repeatedly, short spaces in the action serve to lull us to the brink of consciousness; as we gaze at static images, our minds feel at peace enough to almost begin to wander before being brought crashing back to Emma’s nightmarish reality via the slightest sound or movement.

Unfortunately, the film is a victim of its own success in this regard. While we cannot help but feel sympathy for Emma, we also cannot help feeling vicariously that through her experiences we are being jerked about. 30 minutes of being poked and prodded every time we feel like finally settling down is intensely annoying – and to an extent, that is appropriate for the subject matter. However, Saturation finds itself in a rather difficult position regarding its run-time in that case. Half-an-hour of this treatment might be pushing it with more mainstream audiences, and runs the risk of exasperated viewers tuning out as a result.

Fortunately, for every mainstream audience, there is a specialist festival looking for experimental content which makes people feel something – and not always a pleasant something either. Saturation will undoubtedly be gleefully snapped up by such communities, as it delves into one of our deepest fears in modern life, and uses that to serve up nothing short of torture – but in an entirely appropriate way.

Like Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang or F.W. Murnau before them, Perrine Liévois and Hadrien don Fayel have deployed expressionist cinema to encapsulate the woes of modern reality in the form of a relentless waking nightmare. This restless horror might divide audiences, but frankly the best films usually do.

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