With Sleep Has Her House, film-maker Scott Barley takes us on a nocturnal journey through susurrant woodland and rumbling rivers. He summons images from the darkness that could be from a fantasy world and which render the familiar indistinct. It is a film to sink into, one that invites you to submit to its arcane rhythms, and it is utterly unique.
To describe Sleep Has Her House too literally would be to undermine its purpose, for its power lies in its ambiguity. The only narrative is the one it stirs in the imagination of its audience. It is easy to see shapes in the darkness, to imagine figures in the moonlit trees or behind the drifting mist. Barley leads us down that path in the beginning. A folkloric epigraph precedes the main body of the film, pre-empting the feeling that the forest we are soon to enter is not wholly grounded in the physical realm: ‘The shadows of screams climb beyond the hills. It has happened before. But this will be the last time. The last few sense it, withdrawing deep into the forest. They cry out into the black, as the shadows pass away, into the ground.’
Often, there is not a lot to see, as night takes over completely, obfuscating all but the strongest reflections and boldest silhouettes. But what we can hear is just as haunting. It could be the trickle of a stream or the fierce cascade of a waterfall. It could be the wind compelling the trees to move, a gale that builds to an alarming crescendo, when the world before us (whether ours or another) sounds like it is ready to collapse in on itself. Meditativeness gives way to urgency; the light of sunset over a serene river valley diminishes, to be replaced by cracks of forked lightning. Animals flee. Just as you start to think you’ve grasped the nature of this place, it begins to change.
Scott Barley encourages his audience to experience Sleep Has Her House in complete darkness and with the volume loud. This is not just a dramatic flourish, because his film really can overwhelm you if you let it. It forgoes narrative to appeal directly to the senses, layering sounds and images to create a vivid yet unfathomable world. Its mystery stimulates the viewer to action; the usual passivity of watching a film is superseded by the need to find meaning in it, to pull our own stories from the night.
This stretching of the veil between worlds is visible in much of Scott Barley’s previous work, and it is partly what aligns him with the Remodernists who strive ‘towards a new spirituality in art.’ Sleep Has Her House is an elaboration upon some of his earlier short films, such as The Green Ray (2017) – footage from which is assimilated into this feature – and Hinterlands (2016), both of which, in accordance with the Remodernist manifesto, boldly ‘address the shadow.’ At the end should come enlightenment, even transcendence, and depending on your optimism for the world that Sleep Has Her House conjures, its closing moments could be a sign of exactly that. On the other hand, it could be a fall deeper into the rabbit-hole, to another place beyond the veil.
Whichever way it takes you, it is an unforgettable experience.
Country: United Kingdom Year: 2016 Director: Scott Barley Writer: Scott Barley Runtime: 90 minutes