DIRECTOR: Becky Johnston
WRITER: Becky Johnston
In her film Sleepless Nights, Becky Johnston choreographs the “linguistic rape” of a woman who finds herself torn between three obsessive men.
Detailed description of the film from the director Becky Johnston:
Well, nobody really knows the story of this film. It starts in 1935. Rene is wealthy, young. He has an on-again, off-again relationship with a woman who he really loves, but she isn’t so crazy about him. They stop seeing each other and much later, run into each other at a party. He has a voice-over that describes the meeting. “I was at a party—I remember—I looked across the room and saw her again. It had been so long…the gin and tonics…noise everywhere…the next thing I knew I was waking up in bed next to her. Her hair was wet against her forehead, I kissed her eyeys. The woman gets pregnant and doesn’t want Rene to have anything to do with the child. She blackmails him for money, saying she’ll spread it all over the papers that he got her pregnant and left her stranded unless he gives her some dough. He gives her the money and she leaves. He never sees her again. And she has other plans up her sleeve, spends all the money he gave her and puts the kid in a foster home. The kid is Marie-Paule. Then the mother marries some creep and they move to the suburbs. They have a son—John Lurie—who’s a bit psychotic. He describes living with them in one of his voice-overs:
“Life in a pigsty, plastic over the furniture, germs in my brain, in my throat, in my microbes. The microbes are destroying me piece by piece. Brown liquid shoved under my nose till I vomit. Trapped. She beats me and runs off with another man every night. I saw him dancing with her. He kissed her hard on the mouth. I think I grabbed her that time…”
He’s your typical Oedipal nut…mother’s a slut, etc. Eventually he freaks out completely and kills her, remember, he says in one scene, “He killed his mother. He killed his mother. He took her by surprise one night as she was coming down the stair.” He’s so schizophrenic he refers to himself in the third person. So, after he kills her, he gets put away…locked up. In another scene he talks about what happened immediately after the murder. “Afterwards, all I remember was the ride. It was a long ride. My clothes were too tight, but I got to live in a new house with clean walls, and there was no plastic over the furniture, and we had lots of servants.” The ride is a ride to the looney bin and the tight clothes are a straight jacket, the new house and servants are the sanatarium and attendants. But he quickly gets bored with life in the sanatarium and escapes, steals a car and just starts driving, remember the first voice-over in the film, he says, “Escape from a bad dream. I don’t care where I end up. The lights on the road dripping in the rain. They are after me with their guns. Their dogs are dripping blood on their teeth. Her face keeps coming back to me through the windshield.”
Jump back to Marie-Paule. She’s been living with a horrible foster family and decides to run away and look for her real father. All she knows is his name and that he lives in New York. She gets on the highway to hitchhike and is picked up by John Lurie. He doesn’t really have anywhere to go and drives her all the way to N.Y. On the way, they have an affair, going from one motel to another. He’s completely nuts about her, loves her madly, more obsession…Marie-Paule calls Rene (who is her father, remember?) while on the road and tells him she wants to meet him. He’s understandably a little paranoid, and thinks her mother put her up to it to shake some more bucks out of him. So he hires a detective, Eric Mitchell, to check her out and find out what her game is. Eric is to pretend that he is an old friend of Rene’s. When Marie-Paule arrives, she turns out to be the complete opposite of what Rene expected. He says in a voice-over, “Blood is thicker than water. I met her. She’s ethereal—She can’t be real, she just came up to me and kissed me. That was all I needed…” He invites her to move into the house with him, as a result, John Lurie, who sticks around because he’s still crazy about her, has to stay in a crummy hotel. “Exiled to a fleabag hotel. The wallpaper is the color of a urine sample. Every once in a while I try to see her, but he keeps her trapped in his castle.” Rene can’t stand John and does everything he can to get him out of the picture. He asks Eric to check upon John, find out what his story is. Meanwhile, Marie-Paule and Eric are having a secret affair. He says, “Hotels in back alleys, love on the run. Just to be alone with her I have to find some smelly hotel where the pillowcases look like they were used to wrap trout in…” He keeps the job as detective, checking up on John just to be able to be near Marie-Paule. He finds out a few things, like the car John came up in was stolen, he has a phoney name, but doesn’t connect anything up. Marie-Paule eventually falls in love with Eric but he turns out to be an egotistical sadist who can’t love anyone but himself. He constantly abuses her, treats her terribly. At the same time, John is behaving like a complete lunatic, harassing her, calling up at all hours of the night, spying on her and Eric, and Rene becomes bitter and possessive and denounces both Marie-Paule and Eric as having betrayed him and only wanting him for his money. She decides it’s all a bit too much to handle and leaves without telling anyone. The only thing she leaves behind is an old photograph of her mother for Rene. John stays around in the city for a while, and at one point comes over to Rene’s house. He sees the photograph of his mother and freaks out. Rene tells him that the photo is of Marie-Paule’s mother, a woman he loved once. John goes berserk says he has to find Marie-Paule; he knows where she would be, etc. He scares Rene shitless, and Rene and Eric both work in earnest to find out what the story on John is, the stolen car, phoney name, etc. They find out that he and Marie-Paule had the same mother, and that John killed her, but it’s too late, John has disappeared. They can’t find him and have called the police. The last time we see Marie-Paule in the film is her waking up in bed in the hotel she’s staying at. She hears a noise, sounds like someone’s breaking into her room, and runs to the door to try to close it. Then you see her struggling with someone, but you don’t know who. And then you see her lying in bed, with a voice-over of Rene’s: “I’m so alone I could die. I don’t know myself anymore. Maybe I’ll go away, meet new people. There are no new people. If I could escape from my memories, escape from a bad dream…” So maybe she dies and maybe she doesn’t. I never wanted that to be completely clear.