Sulev Keedus: Somnambulance (Somnambuul, 2003)

reviewed by Elisabetta Girelli © 2010

Contemporary Estonian cinema has often focused on the national past; this is perhaps not surprising, given the country’s relatively recent independence and separation from the Soviet Union, and the need to assess and explore a complex, often painful national history. Somnambulance is a striking example of this cinematic preoccupation with the past, being set at a most poignant moment in Estonian history: the years 1944/45, prior to and during Soviet occupation.

somnambulanceThe third feature by director Sulev Keedus, who had shot to international fame with the award-winning Georgica (1998), Somnambulance centers on the dramatic life of a young woman, Eetla (Katariina Lauk). Eetla lives with her father (Evald Aavik), a lighthouse keeper, in an isolated spot on the Estonian coast; the film opens in the autumn of 1944, when Estonian people are fleeing their country in expectation of a Soviet invasion. Eetla also had secured a place on the last boat leaving for Sweden but, when already leaving the shore, she jumps off the boat and returns home. Through the rest of the autumn, and the following winter and spring, Eetla’s mental state becomes increasingly disturbed: she talks constantly as if she were in a dream or nightmare; she often addresses her mother, who is not there and is never seen on screen, because she abandoned Eetla and her father a long time ago. More than anything, Eetla is obsessed with her own body and her sexuality: she obsessively fears being raped by the Soviet invaders, and just as obsessively she fantasizes about enjoying sex with men―something which, as the film opens, has not happened yet, because Eetla is still a virgin. Both things eventually take place: Eetla finds a temporary lover in Kasper (Ivo Uukkivi), an Estonian man who has sought refuge on their farm, and later on she is repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers: first by one who loiters around her house; then she is abducted and gang-raped, until her father is able to ransom her back. After this last experience, Eetla is increasingly confused: when meeting again with the first soldier who had raped her, she tries to seduce him, only to change her mind too late, when the man rapes her again. The film ends in tragedy: both Eetla and her father commit suicide after destroying their lighthouse in a blaze.

somnambulanceBeautifully shot in a stunning yet oppressive seascape, brilliantly cast and performed, Somnambulance is a disturbing but compelling meditation on issues of nation and gender, of sanity and madness. If one considers the film’s overt plot, it is not difficult to see how the protagonist’s body may stand for a symbolic national space: the film presents us with a background of expectation and the subsequent actualization of the Soviet army invading and violating Estonia. We are shown Eetla’s father listening to war developments on the radio, Soviet planes circling above in the sky, then the news that the Soviets have arrived and have burnt down whole villages. Against this background, we are presented with the film’s dominant narrative: the possibility and reality of Eetla being raped by the Soviet invaders. At the same time, Eetla is placed in a specific geophysical location which both is and represents the nation: the Estonian natural landscape. Somnambulance, therefore, effectively constructs a spatial narrative, which ‘maps’ the relations and negotiations between Eetla, her body (bodily space) and the surrounding landscape (external space).

While Eetla’s body and Estonia are both presented as spaces under threat, to be defended against foreign invasion, this initial identification is problematized by the protagonist’s ambivalent relation to her body: although she inhabits it, she does so with acute frustration and discomfort. Throughout the film, Eetla is careless and unloving towards her body, slow to take any measures to nourish it or warm it; in a moment of distress, she repeatedly bangs her head against a wall, and she often ends up soaked in the cold sea water during her hysterical fits. Indeed, the only time when Eetla receives some physical care is when her father tries to nurse her after her gang-rape ordeal. Equally, Eetla’s obsessive dread of rape is disturbingly mixed up with her desire for sex, for example when she seduces the Soviet soldier who had previously raped her.

somnambulanceAt the same time, Eetla is seemingly indifferent towards her own nudity, as she often walks around naked or half-naked. In visual and narrative terms, then, the film strongly foregrounds her body, marking it as solid space which, just as the Estonian coast, is also exposed and vulnerable. However, Eetla’s body is also openly associated with needs and demands which are clearly in excess of both place and circumstances (a deserted landscape and a patriarchal father): in this way, the body’s constant presence ruptures and reveals the illusory balance between the farmhouse, the lighthouse and the surrounding landscape―this collective, unifying space to which she is expected to belong, and which her father hopes to defend and maintain.

We can then see how the film poses an essential tension between the female body, which claims attention, gratification and freedom, and its symbolic equivalent, the Estonian nation which contains Eetla and her body, and which appears wholly male-dominated. While first of all a powerful, pessimistic take on the nation’s experience of trauma and violence, Somnambulance is also an unflinching representation of the specific cultural referents of rural Estonia in the 1940s. The film’s recreation of a stiflingly patriarchal world, dominated by untamed natural forces which bind and overwhelm individuals, provides a haunting experience that continues to linger on in the spectator’s mind.

Posing questions which ultimately remain unanswered (what does it mean to be an Estonian woman? how is Eetla’s narrative reconcilable with that of Estonia? yet how is it detachable from it?) Somnambulance creates a memorable, unsettling portrayal of national and personal chaos. It is a brilliant cinematic achievement, and essential viewing for anyone interested in Baltic filmmaking.

Elisabetta Girelli, University of St. Andrews

Somnambuul, Estonia, 2003
Color, 129 min.
Director: Sulev Keedus
Script: Sulev Keedus and Madis Kõiv
Music: Helena Tulve
Director of Photography: Rein Kotov
Production Designer: Ronald Kolmann
Editing: Kaie-Ene Rääk
Cast: Katariina Lauk, Evald Aavik, Ivo Uukkivi, Jan Uuspõld
Producers: Kaie-Ene Rääk and Lasse Saarinen
Production: F-Seitse (Estonia) and Kinotar OY (Finland)


Sulev Keedus: Somnambulance (Somnambuul, 2003)

reviewed by Elisabetta Girelli © 2010