Judge George Hatch was hoping to make some "snoozer" and "No-Doz" jokes. Instead, he found himself caught up with the people in this pinball machine called life. "Tommy, can you hear me?"
"I don't start with dialogue, like many people do. I start with
atmosphere, ambience, some of the details."
At first, it appears that atmosphere and ambience is all you get in the early scenes of I Can't Sleep, but Claire Denis has fashioned an open Chinese puzzle-box on film. She presents viewers with an intricate series of visual and aural "sliding panels" and "secret drawers," then challenges them to figure out the complex maneuvers required to "close" the box and see the picture as a whole.
This strategy is similar to the one Atom Egoyan employed for Exotica, which was released the same year. Seemingly unrelated individuals cross paths, and random occurrences gradually fold over and into each other until they coalesce into the director's vision and intent.
Hopefully, viewers are intrigued, enthused, and encouraged to hang on for the ride.
Facts of the Case
Daiga (Yekaterina Golubeva) is a young Lithuanian woman returning to Paris with hopes of continuing her theatrical education. She manages to secure a menial job and a place to live in a hotel that caters to émigrés. Another resident is Theo (Alex Descas), a black man yearning to go back to Martinique. But he has problems with his estranged wife, Mona (Béatrice Dalle), about custody of their five-year-old son. Theo works as a handyman by day so he can support his child and plays the violin at local concerts in the evening.
Camille (Richard Courcet) is Theo's brother, a homosexual and transvestite chanteuse at one of the most subterranean gay clubs in Paris. Camille's lover is Raphael (Vincent Dupont), but their uneasy relationship often results in arguments, separations, and occasional reconciliations.
Claire Denis favors characters living on the fringe, and in I Can't Sleep, she focuses on culturally displaced immigrants, social outcasts, and sexual transgressives. As these people unwittingly intersect—Daiga, for instance, is the maid who cleans Camille's hotel room—Paris is being terrorized by "The Granny Killer." The film is punctuated by radio announcements advising vulnerable elderly women to "stay inside and lock your doors." Those who do walk the streets see only headlines that scream, "France is Afraid!" and "Police Find Another Victim!"
But no one really seems to care, and their indifference to these murders must have been one of the film's most shocking elements upon its initial release in 1994. Today, we are all living in a world where apprehension and fear have become second nature, and the intensity is cued by color-coded alerts. Like the people in I Can't Sleep, we still try to go about our business while the media inundates us with critical information and dire warnings. Denis, however, uses this public insouciance as a backdrop to concentrate the attitudes and mindsets of her central characters.
I Can't Sleep is a deliberately paced, non-linear narrative about isolation, alienation, and despair. The people here are uncertain about their futures because they don't really know what they want. They drift through the film like somnambulants, buffered by circumstances over which they have no control, and they have no incentive to take command of their destinies. Malaise dominates their lives.
Theo can't decide whether or not to return to Martinique, and Mona isn't sure if she wants to go with him and save their marriage for the sake of their son. When Daiga is told that theater classes are no longer available, she doesn't pursue another artistic venue, but rather settles for a housecleaning job—at least for the time being. Camille only comes alive at night when he sings in drag. Otherwise, he's depressed and bored, aimlessly walking the streets or flopping out in Theo's apartment.
After about an hour, I Can't Sleep begins to look like a patchwork quilt with these characters "stitched" together in a random pattern. Some stand out by being more colorful and richer in texture; others look like worn-out, recycled pieces of fabric that fade into the background. It's at this point that director Denis delivers a coup by making the viewer aware of incidents that her protagonists have yet to learn about. She reveals the identity of "The Granny Killer(s)." Two on-screen murders occur, one immediately after the other. They are shocking, but not particularly gruesome. In fact, they're without passion or outright cruelty, since the women are strangled as quickly and "mercifully" as possible. But one victim survives and gives a description of one of the killers to the police.
Denis has just closed the first drawer of that Chinese puzzle-box, and we can see the film folding in and taking shape as these characters begin to cross paths and interact. While cleaning his room, Diaga finds erotic photographs of Camille taken in the style of Robert Mapplethorpe. Camille bears a startling resemblance to the police sketch of "The Granny Killer"—but weren't there two? Is the other Raphael, Camille's perpetually angry lover, or Theo, his frustrated and indecisive brother? I Can't Sleep is not a murder mystery so I haven't given away any spoilers. We're never even given a motive for the killings. But the viewer is further rewarded, as Denis continues to close more drawers and slide those secret panels into place.
Without "The Granny Killer" hook, I Can't Sleep is virtually plotless and could have been called "Six Characters in Search of an Exit." Denis's day-in-the-life approach has a near documentary feel to it, but what pulls and, ultimately, holds the film together is the atmosphere of dread conjured up by "The Granny Killers." Denis based these characters on Thierry Paulin, "The Monster of Montmartre," and Jean-Thierry Mathurin, his white lover and accomplice in at least half of the 21 murders committed during 1984 and 1987, when they were captured. At that time, however, there was, indeed, a genuine panic, and the elderly women of Montmartre occasionally moved in together and always did their shopping in groups with police protection.
Perhaps Denis wanted to make a film specifically about Paulin himself. In a 1995 interview for POZ Magazine, she said, "I was struck by Thierry Paulin's journey through life. He had been a character on the fringe of society since his childhood—black, homosexual, with his drug deals, his murders and then AIDS. The press referred to him as a monster, but the man, the person, remained totally mysterious." So Denis created Camille as his cinematic counterpart and also placed the rest of her characters on "the fringe of society." The result is nothing short of astonishing.
I admit that I Can't Sleep is a difficult film to watch. We are expected to find interest in and emphasize with characters who don't seem care about themselves or pursue a logical route out of their predicaments. They are all accidents waiting to happen, and their credo is "Whatever happens, happens. I don't care." By abruptly cutting from one character to another—frequently in mid-scene—Denis's pinball editing doesn't allow us enough time to identify with any of them or get into their heads. But, during the second half of the film, as she gradually exposes her meticulously arranged presentation, our attention is captured by the intricate schematics of her cinematic design.
Overall, the acting in I Can't Sleep is faultless, but I must single out Richard Courcet's portrayal of Camille. Here again, I feel that Claire Denis wanted to make a film about his real-life counterpart, and she found the perfect actor. Courcet is brooding, intense, and calculating as Camille in the real world he's forced to contend with. But when he assumes his nighttime drag persona, all inhibitions are let loose. I'm not into the big-hair, heavy-make-up, and extravagant, over-the-top costumes of stereotyped drag queens—the kind you see in Priscilla: Queen of the Desert. Courcet and director Denis, however, opted for a simpler image: a black bandana that pulls Camille's short hair back, minimal dark lipstick and eye shadow, and a strapless, floor-length black gown. Courcet is absolutely mesmerizing as he lip-syncs a melancholy, dirge-like song in French. I only wish subtitles had been provided because I'm certain they are relevant to his personality. For me, this was one of the stunning set-pieces of the film.
Yekaterina Golubeva (Pola X) plays Daiga, the main character we are urged to identify with. In her early scenes, she looks like a cross between a confused Shelley Duvall and a morose Johnny Depp. She never perks up except for arguments over money, from the price of a breakfast croissant to a stolen car. Perhaps, Golubeva was intended to be the empty vessel into which viewers were expected to pour and contemplate their own emotions, or lack thereof, but this actress didn't work for me. I found her performance too listless and the character uninvolving.
On the other hand, Alex Descas as Theo and Béatrice Dalle as Mona share a dynamic chemistry as the frustrated, indecisive couple trying to pull their lives and marriage together. There's a wonderful scene toward the end of the film in which they share a blanket on the chilly roof of the hotel as the sun rises. Their son lies between them as they try to reconcile their differences. They're bathed in the red glow of a neon sign across the street, but, at dawn, it clicks off, indicating it's time for decisions to be made.
Wellspring Media's transfer of I Can't Sleep is flawless. The cinematography by Agnès Godard (L'Intrus,) is spot-on and delivers something more revealing and subversive than the usual traveler-friendly Paris we're used to seeing. Although the keepcase claims the film is in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and enhanced for 16x9 TVs, I Can't Sleep is actually presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. The French Dolby Digital 5.1 stereo is crisp and clear, and the extras include brief filmographies and web links to Wellspring's other titles.
I Can't Sleep is a disconcerting and disorienting film that may test your patience, especially during the first half. But if you allow yourself to be caught up in Claire Denis's vision, the rewards are plentiful.
No Guilty! …and so to bed.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
Review content copyright © 2005 George Hatch; Site design and review layout copyright © 2013 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.