All that we see and seem: cinematic false awakenings


So this guy Freud wrote a book called The Interpretation of Dreams. Or did he? Maybe he dreamt that he wrote it. Or maybe you dreamt it. Maybe you’re dreaming that you’re reading this right now and in a minute you’ll wake up to find that you’re Sigmund Freud. Confusing, no? When cinema deals in the stuff that dreams are made of sometimes it’s difficult to spot a real wake-up call from a bogus one.

Let’s distinguish the ‘dream within a dream’ set-up from other movie dream states. This is not about the Disneyland Freudianism of Dali’s dream sequence in Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) or Victor Sjöström’s nightmare in Bergman’s Wild Strawberries (1957); in both cases the dreamer definitely wakes. Neither is this the ‘it was all a dream’ pressing of a reset button for purposes of plot expediency that results in characters thought to be dead emerging from showers in US soaps or Mancunian detectives emerging from comas after spending two series stuck in 1973.


One of the best-known examples of a double dream plays out in An American Werewolf In London (John Landis 1981). Whether anything quite as deft as this sequence will be left in the 2011 remake remains to be seen; when David Kessler (David Naughton) is seen back home in the States after his mauling on the moors we might assume that all is right with the world. That is until a freakish squad of monsters smash their way in, fire up the lounge and slaughter his family before slitting David’s throat – at which point he awakes with a start in his London hospital bed. All just a dream then, until nurse Jenny Agutter draws back a curtain and is mercilessly dispatched by one of the same monsters – and David wakes once more. A simple trick, but one that serves, at least for a few minutes, to leave the viewer thinking ‘is he actually awake now? Is this still his dream? Will another monster jump out?’


James Cameron tried it on at the beginning of Aliens (1986); Ellen Ripley seemingly wakes from her fifty seven year hypersleep just in time to witness her own chestburster moment, only to wake up again to find that her moment of apparent waking had been a dream. Ripley continues to have nightmares about xenomorphs until she chooses to face her demons on planet LV-426, and even then she has a moment of waking – in the med lab when guarding Newt – when we might question whether at least some of what has gone before might have been dreamt. At the end, when the survivors are returned to cryo-slumber Newt asks of Ripley: ‘Can I dream?’ ‘Yes honey, I think we both can’ is the reply, which has led some members of the Anorak Brigade to believe that the whole of Alien 3 can be explained away as one long dream.

Since these examples from the 80s the double dream has become something of a staple gimmick of the scary movie; it’s the basis of many a jolt in the Nightmare On Elm Street franchise. However it has been employed to more cerebral cinematic ends as an all-embracing method of challenging the conventions of reality in the mind of the viewer. Richard Linklater attempted to plant his audiences in a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream etc. through his rotoscope curio Waking Life (2001). It is a piece of arch existentialist philosophy that by its very nature fails to keep the viewer engaged in any sense of narrative momentum. However, like a dream, the film fluidly moves from idea to idea or scene to scene without much explanation but with the implicit acceptance that the state of dreaming allows what reality does not.


This Russian Doll effect of false realities encased within false realities was achieved majestically by Luis Buñuel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). The low-key realistic opening – guests on their way to a dinner party – suggests cinematic realism but gradually we realise that this is an endless dream within a dream state. The guests find they have arrived for dinner on the wrong night and the hostess is in her nightgown preparing to go to bed. As the film progresses, the reasons for the lack of food – rubber turkey anyone? – become ever more surreal. At one point a curtain is drawn to reveal the guests are on a stage watched by an angry audience. Is there ever a real point of waking? The soup of surrealism in which Buñuel deposits his characters like so many flies is certainly an acquired taste, but if you’re willing to let a film open your head up to the possibility that what you’re experiencing right now might actually just be a construction of dreams from which you may, or may not, awaken, then this is the one to watch.


Jez Conolly

By Jez Conolly

Jez has contributed to numerous film-related books, magazines and websites. He has co-edited three books in Intellect's World Film Locations series, covering Dublin, Reykjavik and Liverpool and has contributed pieces to many more volumes in the series. His monograph on John Carpenter's The Thing in Auteur's Devil's Advocates series of books was published in 2013. He is currently working on another book in the same series, concerning Ealing Studios' Dead of Night.

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