I CAN’T SLEEP (J’ai pas sommeil) A-
France Switzerland Germany (110 mi) 1994 d: Claire Denis
France Switzerland Germany (110 mi) 1994 d: Claire Denis
A witty and sophisticated drama of interconnectedness, much of this feels like a choreography of missed connections, where even well past an hour or so into the film the viewer still has no idea where this film is heading, and may still be wondering even after the final credits roll, as this is an oddball, character driven story where the characters take on greater significance than any story developments themselves, many of which simply disappear into thin air. A perfect example is the opening sequence, where two helicopter policemen are seen enjoying a joke, including extensive laughter that continues at length, yet the viewer never hears the original joke. Moreover, these two policemen are never seen again in the film and don’t at all figure into the action. Nonetheless, they are the opening shot, flying high above the city of Paris and the connecting highways leading into the city. From one of these random highways, we see an old beat-up car with foreign license plates, presumably Russian Cyrillic letters, where an attractive young (as it turns out Lithuanian) woman named Daiga (Yekaterina Golubeva) has a cigarette dangling out of her mouth as she approaches town, where the radio cuts to a breaking news story about the latest victim of the so-called “granny killer,” a string of murders targeting elderly women, presumably for petty cash. However, another pair of clearly inept policemen *do* figure prominently into the storyline, as they keep popping up unexpectedly, usually in the development of some plot detail. A seemingly disconnected shot reveals a young black man wearing a white suit, who turns out to be Camille (Richard Courcet), getting into a fight with a car passenger, who scrambles back into the car as it quickly drives away, as Camille’s white suit is a stark contrast to the two black garbage men who then pull into the frame, all staring at one another as if each is an alien from another planet.
As Daiga gets her life sorted out, where there is a game of musical chairs played in the Lithuanian community to determine just where she will stay, much of this plays out in exaggerated caricature, comic portrayals rarely seen in any Denis film, where this actually more resembles the strange visit from the Hungarian cousin who arrives unexpectedly in America in Jim Jarmusch’s STRANGER THAN PARADISE (1984), one of the directors Denis worked with before making her own films. Daiga ends up staying with an elderly Latvian hotel owner, Line Renaud (who can be heard singing with Dean Martin in the opening song heard on the car radio) where as it happens, Camille has a room at the same hotel with his boyfriend. Daiga, who speaks little to no French, was led to believe she’d have a job in Paris, but when she sees the theater producer, he’s just been stringing her along in hopes he might get into her pants. Completely in passing, Béatrice Dalle, who appeared in the Paris episode of Jarmusch’s Night on Earth (1991), is initially seen sitting at an outdoor café, where her character is not even introduced. Instead we meet Camille and his brother Théo (Alex Descas) with his young son Harry in another apartment, seen talking through a thin wall separating their beds. Dalle turns out to be Mona, the child’s mother who has a hard time spending any extended time with her husband Théo, who doesn’t appear to want anything to do with her. He plays violin in a Caribbean band, seen here to Kali’s song “Racines” Kali-Racines-JaiPasSommeil - YouTube (4:03), and dreams of returning to live on the beach in Martinique, which completely leaves Mona out of the picture. In a nearby apartment, there are loud cries in the night, presumably from domestic violence, but when Théo goes to investigate, they all look suspiciously at one another.
While it’s a long, novelesque set up introducing all the central characters, working with more than thirteen characters, none of whom would typically figure in films we’re used to seeing, as they would be marginal characters relegated to secondary roles, but here it’s an interesting portrait of the alienating aspects of cultural diversity, something later explored in greater detail in Michael Haneke’s CODE UNKNOWN (2000). In Denis’s film, however, these fragmented, often interconnecting episodes are largely unresolved, perhaps reaching a climax when Camille performs at a nightclub in drag, an intensely powerful performance where the audience stands transfixed, all standing just a few feet away, at his anguished “cry of love,” perhaps the theme of the film, but he never once returns their look, eventually turning his back, hiding the inner secrets to his soul, seen here to Jean Louis Murat’s “Le Lien Défait (The Broken Bond)” (J'ai Pas Sommeil - Claire Denis -1994 ), which casts a strangely mystifying aura over the rest of the film. Camille has a volatile relationship with his own blond-haired boyfriend, mirroring the instability of his brother’s relationship, while the two brothers themselves rarely even speak to one another. There’s a telling scene at their own mother’s birthday party, where each brother vies for their mother’s attention on the dance floor. Everyone leads solitary lives, perfectly expressed by the largely unseen, lonely existences of the elderly who are victims of prey, all just part of the isolated lives of outsiders, where the difficulty to be accepted by the mainstream places particular pressures on this group, as they all appear to be drifters leading aimless lives.
Instead of actions driving the narrative of the film, what’s more intriguing here is what isn’t revealed, what’s clouded under the layers of silences, especially between the two brothers who remain strangers to one another. Camille arrives at Théo’s door with something to tell him, but then leaves without a word, earlier seen at a hospital clinic, where there is a noticeable mark on his cheek, but nothing more is revealed, where one might surmise he is HIV positive, but the director leaves this intentionally ambiguous, adding a brief sequence of Camille dancing in a darkly lit gay nightclub. Daiga, who eventually finds work as a hotel cleaning woman, and who couldn’t be less interested in her work, appears to be the observing eyes behind the film, as we get telling glimpses of what she sees, like clues unraveling the mysteries of the film, where she sees behind the hidden lives, being near invisible herself. This is a film of marginalized lives told through a recent headlines grabbing incident where there was an actual serial killer of elderly women in Paris. While the killer is revealed, rather than deriving pleasure or enjoyment from committing acts of murder, the murderer kills with the same boredom and disconnection that plagues the rest of their life. Denis provides a highly impressionistic, richly textured look at the hidden layers lurking underneath the incident, examining issues of immigration, disconnection, race, and urban alienation, where characters are often asked by authorities to see their papers, but the viewer can be overwhelmed by the loss of intimacy reflected in the film, and how easily the grief and sorrows of the marginalized remain forever invisible to the larger mainstream society at large.