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As young Sophie Matthews (Lily Bird) sits watching her father Paul (Nicolas Cage) sweep autumn leaves, the glass surface of the table beside her suddenly shatters as a set of keys falls from the sky. Soon, more objects splash heavily into the pool. Sophie recoils with confusion and horror at these irrational incidents, but what is even more peculiar is Paul’s non-response, even as his own daughter flies into the air screaming.
This sequence at the beginning of Kristoffer Borgli’s Dream Scenario turns out to be the latest in a series of dreams Sophie has been having, all featuring her father as an absent presence, seemingly central yet barely there at all – and while it is hardly unusual to dream about a family member, it will turn out that many others, even complete strangers, are also having their dreams gatecrashed by a conspicuous yet oddly inert Paul. Paul is equally inert in real life.
A tenured professor who has long been planning to write a book but shies from the actual work involved, he is an unmemorable middle aged, middle-class family man with a loving wife, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and daughters Sophie and Hannah (Jessica Clement). His dream appearances make Paul what ridiculous branding agent Trent (Michael Cera) terms “the most interesting person in the world”; but this unexpected celebrity is not for anything that Paul has actually done, only for a peculiar status he has involuntarily acquired in other people’s collective subconscious. When Trent’s assistant Molly (Dylan Gelula) – seemingly the only person in whose dreams Paul plays an active, indeed sexual role – tries to get Paul to re-enact his part in her dream, she is confronted, like an online dater, with the contrast between her dream man and Paul’s mundane reality.
Casting resonates here, often ironically. Where Cage typically plays flamboyant, eccentric action heroes, Paul is a dull schlub and “inadequate loser” marked precisely by his inaction, all whining passivity and self-pity. The film also capitalises on Cage’s status as a real-life icon in the public consciousness: as in Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022), he is the vehicle for dramatising the discrepancy between public image and private self. The facts that Paul is an evolutionary biologist, and that Trent imagines Paul wants to write about ‘plants’, echo Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002), in which Cage’s blocked screenwriter struggles to adapt a book on orchids. Paul’s own longed-for book will finally be published, but in a form – edited, translated, even retitled by others – that has escaped his dreams for it into a more compromised reality.
Paul’s moment in the sun darkens as people’s dreams about him turn to nightmares. One-time fans vilify the real Paul for the violent terror he unleashes in their subconscious, their traumas retriggered by the mere sight of him. As people blame him for what he does in their nightmares, or for real-life accidents caused by their own misplaced fear of him, Paul gradually loses all sense of agency, along with everything he loves, so that he is left only to dream of the reality he once enjoyed.
At one point, Paul refers to Janet’s neuroticism. Perhaps he’s projecting: in a sense, this entire film is Paul’s own dream scenario – an oneiric expression of male mid-life anxiety as well as a companion piece to the neurotic nightmare Beau Is Afraid (2023), whose writer/director Ari Aster serves as co-producer here. Borgli’s previous feature Sick of Myself (2022) darkly lampooned the (self-)destructive narcissism of the internet age, and Dream Scenario does something similar, presenting us with a self-absorbed antihero, and pathologising his contradictory desires to blend in and stand out (like the zebras about which he lectures). As Paul is raised up and ruined by his own entirely unearned viral success, Borgli offers a surreal, ultimately sad satire of 21st-century online exposure.
► Dream Scenario is in UK cinemas 10 November.