Cesar (Luis Tosar) is a quiet, unhappy concierge at a Barcelona apartment building, going about his days seemingly unconcerned about the residents. But, in fact, he's watching them all very closely, especially Clara (Marta Etura), a happy young carefree woman. Cesar's obsession with Clara turns ugly when he decides to make her life miserable with anonymous harassment.
SPANISH FILM FESTIVAL: Writer/director Jaume Balagueró launched Europe’s last successful horror film franchise with the [Rec] series and it looks like he may have another in Sleep Tight. Genre giant Filmax Studio could make a tidy sum by spinning the misadventures of sociopathic stalker César into a series of sorts; the conniving concierge is the nastiest, most captivating screen villain in quite some time.
One of the great 'joys’ of Sleep Tight is how we gradually discover César’s obsession
Luis Tosar plays César as a nondescript nobody, vastly different from the actor’s last prominent role of volatile prisoner Malamadre in Daniel Monzón’s Cell 211 (2009). The tightly coiled intensity remains, but César is an even more terrifying prospect despite his outwardly calm demeanour.
As the front-desk caretaker of a Barcelona apartment block, César is trusted and mostly liked by all the tenants who grant him 24-hour access for any necessary maintenance. When not on the job, he visits his bedbound, speech-deprived mother in hospital. César is also infatuated with the vibrant Clara (Tosar’s real-life partner, Marta Etura), who lives alone in the building’s upper floor.
One of the great 'joys’ of Sleep Tight is how we gradually discover César’s obsession. Revealing the details would do only the film a disservice, but I will say they are played with a pitch-black humour and stomach-tightening tension. Balagueró has quickly established himself as somewhat of a master of nerve-jangling suspense (Los sin nombre; Fragile) and he plays many of these scenes in near-silence and almost entirely from César’s perspective, resulting in that awkward sense of identification with the criminally insane.
Some of the narrative strains credibility, such as: César’s ongoing mind games with tweenage tenant Ášrsula (Iris Almeida Molina); Clara’s failure to notice any trace of one particularly invasive act from César (upon which the plot takes a particularly macabre twist); and some idiotic, 'only-in-the-movies’ procedural work from Spain’s finest. But such shortcomings can be easily skipped over given the frame-by-frame escalation of events and consequences that Balaguero’s terrific anti-hero has to deal with.
Violence is largely eschewed and/or succinctly implied in all but one particularly graphic bathroom scene. It’s one of several that take place in that part of Clara’s apartment, only adding to the sense that Hitchcock’s Psycho, with its charming, mother-fixated caretaker central character, was clearly on everyone’s mind during the film’s production. (Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is another yardstick.) But whereas Norman Bates was being controlled and manipulated by his 'sickness’, César positively revels in its manifestations. His duality is intensely frightening yet undeniably compelling, putting the audience in his corner while never actually winning them over.
It’s a strange, entrancing way to watch a film: caring for the plight of a character one normally should not feel compelled to follow or care for. It’s a balancing act that Balagueró accomplishes sublimely. The rich irony of the film’s title may not dawn on you until you settle into bed for the night.