Teacher Mila (Polina Davydova) is kidnapped and over the course of a few days tortured to the point of breakdown. A disembodied voice (Olivia Indik) tells Mila that she must stay awake and do as she is told, or she will be punished even further. Any punishment is delivered by a masked thug (Evgeniy Gagarin) who is always shown wearing a black balaclava with a zipper around its mouth. Gagarin’s character never speaks aloud, because he only administers the rules.
The point of this exercise is simple: Mila is a test subject for “Recreation,” a group who are experimenting on people to the point where they’re so traumatised that they’re capable of hurting anybody - even people they love. One way or another - this "story ends in murder". The Administrators responsible for the torture watch Mila's decline with interest, alongside a pay-per-view audience whose jeering remarks in the online forum speaks of the desensitisation to any personal plight when viewed on the internet. Of course, the dark web contains films far more grim than anything Sleepless Beauty can offer.
If you like Torture Porn, then the psychological trials that Mila ensures, will keep you intrigued. The methods used are not the glamorously creative methods of Saw, but rather take inspiration from torture used in prisoner of war camps. Mila is not allowed to sleep, subject to electric shocks, little food or water and a mind boggling creepy cartoon for hours. Probably the most disturbing is where a woman wearing a mask of Mila's face is brought in, and Mila has to answer a number of questions in a gameshow style format -thinking it will save the woman's life. Of course successful answering of the final riddle means that the woman is shot in front of her. A child's voice shames Mila about an abortion whilst Mila has to reach inside a bucket of "anatomical waste" in order to escape. Except she cant. Eventually Mila becomes completely catatonic and is taken for an operation. The distress caused is believable and realistic, Davydovas performance elicits real empathy in the audience.
Quite frankly, I think the film would have followed a better story arc if they had either committed to either Mila as the sole focus, or the wife of the politician as the true target. Muddling the two made for unnecessary confusion and a lack of clear direction in the characters story. Mila was compelling, and adding further backstory cumulating in the existing bleak ending, would have deepened my appreciation for Sleepless Beauty. As it happens there are too many plot holes that could have been easily filled.
Having both chatroom lurkers and the medical operation seemed like overkill. The assessment stating that the operation caused a lack of recognition undermined the purpose of the psychological torture. The ending would have been just as tragic, had the creators stuck with the total annihilation of Mila's personality through torture for paying viewers pleasure. This would have been a stronger metaphor for how we treat people on social media, which Sleepless Beauty attempts to comment on.
At one point an internet cretin says that they wish they could see what Mila can see on the VR. We are eventually shown a weird and distracting animation that reminded me of the Artist Jokov Burov who worked on Russian band 'Ic3peak' music videos. Putting my Industrial Metal geek aside, I think it would have been best if what Mila was shown was left to our imagination.
As Torture Porn goes, Sleepless Beauty has some genuinely horrific and realistic moments which makes it worth a watch if you enjoy this style of film. However, the bizarre animations, confused storyline and resulting plot holes dimmed the shine of an otherwise great film.
Sleepless Beauty screened at Grimmfest Easter edition in 2021 and is available for streaming.