Jagged Edges
Michael Koresky on I Can’t Sleep

“Urban alienation” is one of those terms that has buzzed up in discussions of much art cinema of the past ten or twenty years, often deployed without meaning or insight. The notion of living in a city and bumping up against strangers all day long, from different pasts and places, who have cross-purposed hopes and hungers, desperations and dissatisfactions, while still feeling immensely solitary, is indeed a paradox of twentieth century living, and the textures of these contradictions have been recognized in the work of many of our most acclaimed contemporary filmmakers, hailing everywhere from Taiwan (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Tsai Ming-liang, Edward Yang) to China (Jia Zhangke) to Iran (Jafar Panahi) to Austria (Michael Haneke) to, even sometimes, the U.S. (Jim Jarmusch).

But like any critical crutch, it can also be deployed to reduce a vast array of human complexities and experiences to simple catchalls. City dwelling doesn’t necessarily breed isolation, and immigration doesn’t always lead to individual suffering, whether quietly noble or explosively violent; and the heightened drama of solitude can be as clichéd as all of those patchworks of interconnectedness, specialized by hacks such as Alejandro González Iñárritu. Perhaps to truly define and sculpt an image of contemporary urban living as experienced by a city’s most peripheral denizens, a filmmaker needs to get past the concreteness of the faces, sidewalks, and buildings and move into something more malleable; it’s doubtful anyone’s grasped this shiftiness, of motivation, of expectation, better than Claire Denis with 1994’s I Can’t Sleep, an early film of hers so assured in its assemblage of random dramatized human experience, and so lingering in its mysteries, that one can only see other “urban alienation” movies as trying to play catch-up.

Here, as usual, Denis’s abstract approach to storytelling has a thematic and social grounding. Accused by naysayers of purposely alienating viewers from her characters and events onscreen, Denis always has a rationale for looking at life from the sidelines. In I Can’t Sleep, she’s making a film about marginalization, so it makes perfect sense that it would be constructed of fleeting moments, caught from the peripheries. Denis’s way of getting at her principals’ points of view is strenuous and complex (hardly vague and insubstantial as some claim), a constantly evolving negotiation of the individual and also how she or he is perceived by a society that doesn’t seem to require them. The three main characters in I Can’t Sleep are immigrants in Paris who have ended up eking out livings doing things they probably never intended to, while only occasionally being able to indulge in those passions we come to learn they have: the Lithuanian actress Daiga (Katerina Golubeva) has come to stay with her Great Aunt Ira and ends up part of a community of Slavs in her building, one of whom for which she eventually works as a hotel maid; Théo (Alex Descas), who desperately wants to return to Martinique, does the odd carpentry job while trying to raise a young son, with the occasional help of the child’s somewhat estranged mother (Béatrice Dalle), only sometimes playing violin for local music groups; and Théo’s brother, Camille (Richard Courcet), the most enigmatic figure, a taciturn drag queen who relies on his brother’s financial support and is involved in a passionless relationship with a drab local man (Vincent Dupont), a beanpole with a penetrating stare.

We glean these people’s dissatisfaction and detachment from behavior and stolen moments—they’re not telegraphed or explained, as sorrow and melancholy often are in so many other films about urban “lost souls” or whatever you care to call them (think of the amount of lines that squeal “I’m so fucked up!” or “I’m unhappy!” in a film like Magnolia). And though the separate storylines of Daiga and the brothers (themselves mostly compartmentalized from one another) do eventually collide, I Can’t Sleep is hardly a movie portrait of “intersecting lives” avant la lettre. Daiga stays in her own sliver of a world, as does Théo. Camille, the only character who makes real attempts at connection with those outside his immediate circles (of African immigrants, of gays), does so in a violent manner, which makes his character a shocking rebuke to our initial assumption that we’re watching a tale of victimized innocents.

In fact the creeping power of I Can’t Sleep relies on our expectations as viewers, both in terms of character and genre—the three displaced personages at the center of the film are neither ingratiating heroes, despite their occasional heroics, nor diabolical villains, even when they do villainous things, and similarly the film consistently refutes the engagements and trappings of the “serial killer movie,” though that’s nominally what it turns out to be. As Denis proved in Friday Night and Trouble Every Day, touchstones like “romance” and “horror” don’t interest her in the least, even if her films occasionally snag themselves on a generic nail as they glide past. I Can’t Sleep can’t possibly be considered a literal response to the outpouring of serial killer movies in the early 1990s, from The Silence of the Lambs to Single White Female and so many more, with their intricate motivations or elaborate, meticulously staged deaths and mutilations; yet there’s no denying that for viewers trained to watch movies a certain way, the back-door manner in which Denis enters her ostensible tale of murder is truly unnerving. Denis keeps us on our toes constantly, not via plot revelations, or even cumulative incident, but by having our senses eternally heightened—it’s an approach to filmmaking that only becomes clearer in intent and more opaque in result later in Denis’s career, in such films as Beau travail or L’intrus, which evoke states of mind through atmosphere and texture rather than by illustrating literal events.

So, to spoil a bit, necessarily for these purposes, Camille, along with the help of his gawky, balding white lover, is murdering, seemingly without motivation, helpless little old ladies around Montmartre. He is, as the car radio reports in the film’s opening scenes showing Daiga driving into Paris, the elusive “granny killer” that has been gripping the neighborhood. We nonchalantly discover this slightly more than an hour into I Can’t Sleep, long after sympathy has been built up for all of the characters, despite their mysterious (Camille), erratic (Daiga), or impassive and alienating (Théo) behavior. Of course, all of those adjectives could aptly describe any major Denis character from any of her films of the past decade and more, so there’s no reason to naturally assume their heroic or villainous tendencies. It makes sense to casually mention the horrific truth about Camille because everything that surrounds these seemingly most sensational aspects is infinitely more important—the respectful yet sorrowfully distant relationship between Théo and Camille, so eloquently, sharply defined with so little dialogue; Daiga’s almost constant urban anxiety and the relationships she finds and also founders, with her Lithuanian relatives and those in their enclave. Because Denis presents the murders at such a clinical remove, and because the act of murder is so inherently unknowable to us as an audience, we must accept that there can be no motivation, and therefore such overwrought terms as “urban alienation” become empty signifiers. Whereas the film initially seems to imply that these immigrants have a certain shared suffering at the hands of an indifferent culture, ultimately we see them as discrete individuals who cannot be lumped into some nebulous idea of community.

As one of our great contemporary instinctual filmmakers, Denis further, brilliantly, articulates these themes of isolation through her approach to cutting and shooting—there are certainly very few directors this good at sustaining mood and tone while also wedding every odd choice (for scene and shot duration, for musical queue) to a greater cinematic philosophy. I Can’t Sleep is a succession of images breeding dislocation, from the very beginning, in which a national police troop surveys the ground from a helicopter, laughing about some joke we’re not privy to—once the narrative, as it were, begins, we realize how much of a non sequitur this moment was. Soon we begin looking at a series of disjointed pieces, from Daiga’s arrival to Paris by highway, her ramshackle car being watched by a car full of strange men in the adjoining lane, to close-ups of a dead body surrounded by buzzing flies, to a suited Camille beating up another man in the street in daylight, to Théo perched atop an outdoor staircase in Montmartre. These characters, and their actions, will continue to be presented in harsh, quick moments, isolated from one another and from us. Even the official introduction of Théo and Camille—in a beautifully restive scene, both of them shirtless, intimate, vying for space in front of the bathroom mirror, Camille surreptitiously taking off pantyhose, Théo helping his very young son dress for bed—refuses to give context: Are they lovers? Brothers? Roommates?

That Denis denies us conventional entry into these steely people is only reinforced by the film’s focus on moments that transcend the communication barrier between each of them and others. Denis’s films have never been terribly verbal, which for some proves detrimentally (as opposed to purposely) alienating, although in the context of her films, which often disassociate their characters’ souls from their surroundings (Beau travail, L’intrus, Trouble Every Day), this can prove highly edifying and even aesthetically solidifying. And furthermore, humorous: one of Denis’s tensest scenes here quickly morphs into one of her funniest: Daiga, feeling that she’s being followed on the street late at night, ducks into a theater to avoid this potential stalker; it’s only after she takes her seat that she realizes that she has escaped into a porn theater and is surrounded by a roomful of men, all cowed by this beautiful woman’s disruption. Daiga’s response is to joyously laugh out loud (and as evidenced again in Twentynine Palms, few actors can break up gloom with a more cathartic, open chuckle than Katerina Golubeva). It’s an entirely wordless scene, one for which language would be highly unnecessary, beautiful in its brevity and dark humor, and also pointing to Daiga’s ultimate resilience.

That I Can’t Sleep is as opaque in its dramatics and motivations as any other Denis film and that at the same time it deals with matters that other films define in far more concrete, easily definable and moralized terms (murder, immigration, brotherhood, parenthood) makes it a particularly slippery, difficult entity. Of course, we need to project our ideas about the world, and about cinematic role-playing, onto it to ease our own burdens, hence responses such as the following, by the Onion’s Keith Phipps: “The implicit explanation of the motiveless killer's behavior seems to be that, by being a gay, cross-dressing African immigrant, he's pretty much forced to become a killer. While Denis places the blame for the creation of monsters on the community which excludes outsiders, she simultaneously justifies their prejudices and offers little hope for reconciliation.” In this reductive reasoning, terms such as “seems to be,” “by being,” “pretty much,” and “places the blame” become end points, as does the stated need for “reconciliation”; these are ways of rationalizing inherently unknowable lives. That I believe the exact opposite of everything said in the above quote to be true about I Can’t Sleep is less important than that Claire Denis would refuse either reading. To ask for ideological certitude from this filmmaker is like expecting a Los Angeles–set romantic comedy from Michael Haneke or a multigenerational vampire epic from Woody Allen. In film, non-pandering portraiture is sadly the most alien thing of all.