A young Dutch geologist in northern Norway loses his way and his reason in “Beyond Sleep,” an elliptical tale that contrasts its protagonist’s instability with the immutability of Mother Nature. No doubt the novel by celebrated Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans is one of those books usually mentioned in conjunction with the word “unfilmable,” yet the pic does an impressive job in capturing a sense of unsettled interiority contrasted with the fixed, vast open spaces. Even so, Boudewijn Koole’s follow-up to “Kauwboy” is unapologetic arthouse fare with limited traction except in Holland, where Hermans’ work is required reading.
To get inside the head of his main character, Arthur (Reinout Scholten van Aschat), the helmer-scripter ensures that audiences themselves don’t immediately know how to distinguish between reality and nightmare via a montage of short scenes that destabilize with their sense of minor temporal displacement. Arthur wants to prove that the mountain lakes of northern Norway were formed by meteors rather than glaciers, so he’s on a research trip with Arne (Pal Sverre Hagen).
Arthur’s commitment to this quest is unclear, and very little background information is provided apart from the fact, revealed early on, that his geologist father fell into a crevice and died when his son was 7. In a topsy-turvy way, this perhaps explains Arthur’s reckless hiking style as he jumps over rock fissures with a heavy backpack, wades into quicksand-like marsh, etc. Is he daring fate, proving his (awkward) capabilities, or just slowly losing his mind? In any event, he and Arne join up with two Norwegian colleagues (Anders Baasmo Christiansen, Thorbjorn Harr), big Vikings whose lone-wolf nature antagonizes Arthur’s awkward need for companionship. When they depart, this splendid isolation becomes more intense, exacerbating Arthur’s ebbing grip on sanity.
It surely helps to understand the causes of Arthur’s mental state if one has read the novel beforehand, as the lack of such information will leave viewers with an uneasy appreciation of character and obsession. However, even without this knowledge, auds will be conscious of the way Koole uses the stark yet stunning landscape as both foil and catalyst to Arthur’s neuroses. From the constant presence of mosquitoes and their buzzing to the sense of dislocation fostered by the vast terrain and the summer sun, the locale conspires to overwhelm fragile reason through its unalterable, soft-toned grandeur.
Lensing by Melle van Essen plays with focal lengths, which draws attention to the tension between wide open expanses versus Arthur’s shallow focus containment. Norway’s lichen-blanketed moors and silent mountain lakes are shot in full majesty, with attention paid to the quality of the summer light. A final grace note is provided by an understated scene with a young teenage girl in a bus, played by Maria Annette Tandero Berglyd.