I Can’t Sleep (1994)
Ostensibly, director Claire Denis loosely based her 1994 feature I Can’t Sleep on the 1987 true-crime Montmartre “Granny Killer” case. While this fact sounds intriguing, it is not a very insightful piece of information about the film. Rather than construct a straightforward crime drama in I Can’t Sleep, Denis returns to her more familiar territories – the anxiety of immigration, urban alienation, and how exactly bodies connect or disjoin in the physical world.
I Can’t Sleep tracks the interweaving narrative of 3 characters: beautiful Daiga, recently arrived in Paris from Lithuania; single father Théo, an out of work musician dreaming of returning to Martinique; and Camille, Théo’s younger brother and a transvestite nightclub singer. Non-spoiler spoiler alert: Camille is the character stand-in for the real life “Granny Killer.” Don’t worry – this information ruins nothing. Camille’s true nature is revealed at the halfway mark, in one of the most de-dramatized scenes of cinema violence imaginable.
Denis is famous for yielding little to her audience. Typically this is refreshing – to not be patronized as a viewer is a rare thing in cinema. But in I Can’t Sleep, Denis’ neutral observation of her characters, usually a tactic that yields great results, crosses a kind of clinical line. The alienation of the characters goes to far here – they’re not only alienated from their surroundings, from others, and from their own lives – we are alienated from them.
Part of this is inherent in the character constructions – Daiga, who barely speaks French, has little to say in her new life. Even when asked a direct question, she does not respond, ultimately revealing nothing to the viewer. Camille is a drag queen – a lifestyle of artifice and misdirection. Théo yields a bit more, since as a father to a young child engaged in battle with the child’s mother, he does not have the luxury of completely detaching from his own existence. In his story, the viewer finally finds some relief – we can fully understand his Martinique fantasy as the longing for more alienation, not less.
All of this is not to say I Can’t Sleep does not possess some of the power delivered by Denis’ stronger works. Her films have a way of burrowing under the skin and lingering in the mind long after the credits roll. Camille’s aforementioned act of violence, delivered without foreshadowing or drama, is shocking in it’s non-shockingness. The dispassionate observation of the act creates a sort of cognitive dissonance that rankles for days.
I Can’t Sleep screens on Tuesday, October 22, 2013 at 6:30 pm as part of Objects of Desire: The Cinema of Claire Denis. For more information and to buy tickets, visit tiff.net.
Images from I Can’t Sleep