I Can't Sleep

I CAN'T SLEEP
(J'AI PAS SOMMEIL) 1995

Director: Claire Denis

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl


In an interview, director Claire Denis said, "Beauty pisses me off," by which she means the perportedly perfect beauty of standard actors & actresses. She casts for character visible in faces. Things that are inescapably beautiful she shows their imperfections. Things that are very ugly, like murder, can be performed by people who are easily mistaken for beautiful. These underlying realities are in all her films, but are especially literal in I Can't Sleep.

I Can't SleepDenis is under-recognized in the states. Her only film to have much distribution in the United States was her semi-autobiographical debut film Chocolat (1988) set in the Cameroons, which was nowhere near my favorite. She has done such great films since, but it seems like nothing else has made into American cinemas, outside of a tiny handful of film festivals. Now that her films are on DVD, it's a good idea to catch up on as many of them as one can lay hands on, as she's carrying on a rather classic-tone of French cinema that can mix the romantic & film noir attitudes, in remarkable contexts of alienation, gentleness, brutality, & ennui.

Although thematically I Can't Sleep has the usual ingredients of a psycho thriller, there is a sedate quality to the film that makes it at the same time a lowkey drama. Much of the time the point of view character is a naive girl, Daiga (Katerina Golubeva), who has driven from Lithuania in a beater auto, arriving in Paris at the height of a city-wide fear of the Granny Killers.

A lot of the tension of the film is derived from the fact that her aunt in Paris, & the woman who gives her a place to stay in a hotel's storage room, are elderly women who fit the victim profile. We soon suspect then realize the killers live in the same hotel, & we definitely do not want anything bad to happen to our heroine's aged friend or aunt.

Daiga's mild disappointments & adventures in Paris are as big a part of the story as that of the killer, & by giving equal weight to the banal as to the extreme events, it completely changes the impact of a film about a psycho killer.

The whole cast is wonderful, down the least role. One of the couples intrical to the story are played by Beatrice Dalle (she has a spectacular profile & a "bent" beauty typical of faces in Denis films) & Alex Descas as her Mozambique boyfriend. As a pointless aside, but one which interested me, this same pair play the interracial couple in Claire Denis's all-out horror film, Trouble Every Day (2001).

For half the film, the Granny Killer or killers are not definitively revealed, though this film's audience in France would not be surprised who it is, since the film is based on the actual serial killer Thierry Paulin, who murdered twenty-one old women in Paris in the mid 1980s.

We get to know the characters so well that at some point as viewers we don't want any of them to be either a psychopath or a victim. When at a climactic point in the film the killer's mother breaks down & asks, "Why did I give birth to you, Satan? You were such a sweet little boy," we share in her sense that this young man, of all people, how could he possibly not be the gentle eccentric we had observed in so many contexts of his life, that showed him to have not only vanity & selfishness in him, but also kindness & love.

The story of Daiga & her friends & family is only tangentially related to the story of the killer & his friends & family. She does figure out who it is just before the police do, & it is fascinating that her response is to follow him around for a while, being quite obvious about it & not the least bit afraid of him. She hadn't seemed all that nutty until then, yet it seems never to have occurred to her to turn him in to the police. Rather, it occurred to her that he must have some of the loot from murdered old ladies hidden in his room, & she rather casually wants to find it & take it for herself.

It all plays out in a gentle manner, as though none of it was about a murderer or anything bad. The story of the killer, & the story of Daiga, are both told in the same nearly passive manner. The worst thing that happens to Daiga is she had hoped rather naively for a theater job, because a Parisian acting teacher had taught a class in her Lithuanian town, & had evidently gotten into her pants by making idle promises about if she ever got to Paris his theater could use her talents.

Her revenge on that lying seducer is minor but appealing (the seducer's more than gentlemanly response to her revenge proved him no actual villain). These everyday encounters played with a weight equal to or greater than the killer's acts of murder. If the film had been entirely about Daiga's days in Paris, or if it had been entirely about the Granny Killings, either of these elements could alone have been very good films. Their subtle interweaving creates dynamics greater than the parts, since banalities & criminalities are given such equal significance.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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