Claire Cooper (Annette Bening) is an illustrator of children's books. Paradoxically, it is her unbroken link with such seeming innocence and her creative receptiveness which – one dark day – make her vulnerable to the psychic torture beamed into her brain by a twisted killer, Vivian (Robert Downey Jr).
In Dreams is a curious amalgam of the many film genres that have congregated, over the past few decades, around the literary genre of the Female Gothic – stories in which a woman becomes convinced she is being menaced by every passing representative of the dominant male order.
Claire's agonised journey through the various snake pits, prisons and swamps of the psyche yokes together elements from recent serial killer films like The Silence of the Lambs (1991), horror movies such as the Nightmare on Elm St series, and experimental classics including Maya Deren's Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – not to mention stray but crucial allusions to florid romance novels and children's fairy tales.
It is a terrain to which director Neil Jordan has frequently returned – in The Company of Wolves (1984), High Spirits (1986) and Interview with the Vampire (1995) – in between his more realist excursions into social history, such as Michael Collins (1996) and The Butcher Boy (1997).
In Dreams represents Jordan's most concerted effort to break down the barriers between fantasy and reality, sanity and insanity, intoxicating night-time and sensible daytime. The deeper Claire goes into herself and the visions which assail her, the less strict, logical sense we are able to make of her perceptions and actions.
Jordan and co-writer Bruce Robinson (Withnail & I, 1987) certainly have a way with punchy, lyrical, resonant lines of dialogue: "I'm not obsessed, I'm possessed"; "That's the thing about dreams – they're always right, and they're always wrong"; "After what you've been through, you can be forgiven a bit of psychosis".
Similarly, In Dreams is full of striking images (like the underwater prologue) and intriguing motifs (such as the description of the dream-world as a language that must be read – quite literally, when Vivian starts obsessively inscribing his spooky messages on every available surface).
But why, on the whole, is the film so unmoving and uninvolving? Jordan is an accomplished filmmaker with an enviable grasp of storytelling craft. Yet there is something just too precise, organised and controlled in his work – qualities that are starkly at variance with his keen interest in passionate, unruly states of the unconscious mind.
For all its attempts to conjure a shared, collective unconsciousness beyond the bodies and heads of a few gifted, tormented individuals, we never feel that In Dreams loses tight grip of a particularly conscious calculation.
Of course, no film is literally a spontaneous outpouring from the inner psyche; even improvised movies are partly pre-planned. Still, greater artists like Luis Buñuel and David Cronenberg know how to give their films an eerily dreamlike rhythm, mood and progression; watching Belle de jour (1967) or Crash (1996) takes the viewer on a mysterious, serpentine, constantly surprising and transformative path.
In Dreams lacks such power and persuasiveness; it is an intriguing film, but it has the contrary feel of an earnest, illustrated lecture on the psychoanalytic interpretation of poetic symbolism.
© Adrian Martin August 1999