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BFI London Film Festival

‘Siberia’ is an Alienating Journey Into the Mind

An exploration into the language of dreams.

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It can be difficult to get on with a film that seems like it was made exclusively for an audience of Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud. Fortunately, Siberia has enough to recommend it to those of us without a lifelong dream psychology obsession, thanks in large part to stunning cinematography (courtesy of Stefano Falivene) and a strong lead performance.

Willem Dafoe stars as Clint, a man navigating his own psyche as he grapples with isolation in the Siberian wilderness. The divide between the ‘real’ and subconscious isn’t clearly delineated by director Abel Ferrara, and as such, the film hangs in a sort of liminal space.

Its best moments are its quietest. The muted sound of five huskies pulling Clint’s sled across frozen expanses and deserts is almost hypnotic, and the effectiveness of the scenes depicting Clint’s ‘journey’ makes the film’s occasional reliance on shock factor all the more disappointing. The nightmarish scenes lack bite, with a bear attack and images of a death camp coming out of nowhere and offering very little insight into the protagonist’s mind.

Although, for a film set mostly inside a man’s head, Siberia doesn’t seem particularly interested in it. We find out that Clint had a strained relationship with his father (also played by Dafoe) and a strained relationship with an ex-wife (Dounia Sichov), but Ferrara and co-writer Christ Zois don’t dwell on either. And the dialogue in the exchange between Clint and his ex verges on trite. She says, “You ruined my life.” “We ruined our life!” Clint responds.

The montage that follows, of Clint having sex with a parade of younger women only to end up with his mother on top of him, is a Freudian goldmine but vaguely off-putting for anyone else. It’s the kind of thing that feels too obvious in a film about dreams; the scenes of Dafoe frolicking and dancing prove far more rewarding.

Translating the Dream to Screen

There’s also the fact that watching someone else’s dreams play out doesn’t always make for the most interesting cinematic experience. I say this as one of those people who actually like it when friends recount the dreams they had last night! But a friend’s recurring nightmare where she has to race a polar bear to the death for a lifetime supply of Quavers is more interesting to me than all of the sex and violence Ferrara chooses to pack into his rumination on the human condition.

The thing about dreams is that although they have a lot in common with films – most of us are able to see and hear in them without being able to truly touch taste or smell – it’s almost impossible to capture how dreaming feels on screen. Never mind that it’s different for everybody, there’s something about dreams that’s impossible to distill and adapt. Ferrara’s attempt is one of many that comes close but falls short. It’s okay, though: at the end of Siberia there’s a talking fish, and for one brief moment you might just think: Yeah, that’s what it’s like in a dream.

Siberia plays as part of the London Film Festival, running from 7 -18 October. Learn more via their website.

Ellie recently completed a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham and should be graduating sometime soon. Her greatest loves in life are damaged-but-sarcastic fictional characters, coffee, and semicolons.

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