What if everyone in the world went to sleep and synchronously dreamed about the same man? An idea that proliferated the web fifteen years ago as a now-mythic copypasta meme, inspired by the theories of psychologist Carl Jung, reincarnates as the premise of Dream Scenario, the uncanny new A24 film by Norwegian writer/director Kristoffer Borgli.
In this case, the dream man in question happens to be Nicolas Cage, who plays the unlikely object of everyone’s unconscious minds: a schlubby, balding biology professor named Paul Matthews. Meek yet arrogant, Paul craves renown in his scholarly community and resents his more accomplished peers, until he becomes a celebrity literally overnight upon learning he’s been casually appearing in the dreams of his students, neighbors, and strangers alike. Paul is quickly seduced by the spotlight– his teenage daughters suddenly revere him, students line up to snap selfies with him, a hip ad agency tells him he’s “the most interesting person in the world right now” before pitching a partnership with Sprite –but it’s not long before the tide turns against him. As mysteriously as the dreams began, they give way to violent nightmares, and Paul’s visitations in the collective unconscious start to have cruel ramifications in his waking life.
Dream Scenario is part metaphysical fable about the perils of fame, persona, and groupthink, and part absurdist comedy magnifying the quotidian horrors of social and corporeal life. (If that sounds too heady, know that it also features one—well, two—of the most devastatingly funny farts in cinema history.) The film belongs to a larger body of work in which Borgli explores similar themes– celebrity, media, (de)construction of identity—including last year’s grotesque comedy Sick of Myself, in which a 20-something Oslo woman deliberately contracts an infectious skin disease for attention, and his 2017 debut feature DRIB, a Kiarostamian docu-fiction hybrid about an internet edgelord who becomes a spokesperson for an energy drink. Borgli is continually interested in id-dominant characters unraveled by their addiction to attention, but neither dignifies nor demonizes his protagonists so much as he lays bare their desires and cranks them up to their highest intensity– inviting us to consider what sort of things we’ve done or might do to satisfy our own.
Born in Oslo and based in Los Angeles, Borgli is a perceptive cultural satirist with an irreverent sense of humor and appetite for mortification that approximates Nathan Fielder or Larry David. In terms of filmmaking, Borgli cites David Lynch as a primary influence on his craft, but Dream Scenario also strongly evokes the work of Spike Jonze, in its high-concept surrealism, impish humor underpinned by earnest longing, and of course, in Cage– whose perfectly pathetic rendering of Paul is one of his strongest performances since Adaptation.
Another auteur/quirked-up white boy icon that influenced the film even more explicitly is David Byrne of Talking Heads, a band that factors prominently in a pivotal sequence near the film’s conclusion. It’s a scene that may be the most shocking of all for how tender it is, distinguishing Dream Scenario as Borgli’s most romantic and poignant work yet. (Mild-to-medium spoiler alert: Some of the details of this scene are discussed at the very end of this interview.)