Mooi Indie was how the Dutch referred to the (imagined) Indonesian landscape of palm trees and bucolic valleys; a tropical fantasy ripe with sensuality, fecundity, and feminine exuberance. Sweet Dreams, in similar vein, begins with languid overhead shots of lush vegetation, before finally swooping in to find its narrative on a Dutch East Indies sugar plantation during the waning days of the empire.
Much of Sweet Dreams unfolds like a bricolage of anti-colonial film templates: the brutish Dutch patriarch with an illegitimate Indonesian son; his shrewd and calculating wife, unwilling—and unable—to accept the changing reality around her; their high-strung son and his sexually frustrated wife hell-bent on selling the plantation and a virile sugar-plantation worker constantly plotting to overthrow the white settlers. What Ena Sendijarević succeeds in bringing to the table, by way of novelty, is a motley mix of stylization: there’s deadpan humor, stilted compositions (wide angle distortions and Dutch tilts), lurid art direction (walls bathed in primary reds and greens), chapter intertitles and an arsenal of unhinged surrealist imagery (including a giant human body). None of it quite works, because at its core Sweet Dreams espouses a resolutely simplistic and unambiguous outlook, paying no heed, or only lip-service, if at all, to the actual complexities of the colonial dynamic.
There are some interesting insights in the film, especially in how both parties are irrevocably changed after the colonial encounter, with no possibility of returning to a prior mode of life. These are, however, drowned out by a patchwork aesthetic, a stylization devoid of substance. Hybridity, as the trend seems to be going, could very well be the new orthodoxy of contemporary art cinema.