No doubt those who are familiar with Claire Denis’ work will be well aware of how her films are invested in and expressive of the material connections that unite and divide bodies in the world. Similarly, in her privileging of the sensuous relationship that can occur between spectator and screen, Denis is a director known for eschewing dialogue, character psychology and narrative causality, preferring instead to craft detailed “worlds of sense” that function as highly charged repositories of meaning in their own right (1).
Interviewed shortly after the release of J’ai pas sommeil (I Can’t Sleep, 1994), Denis was to liken her relationship to her actors to choreographies of physical energy, rhythm and movement. The comparison is an apposite one. Not only does the act of dancing feature, repeatedly, in this film (not to mention Denis’ cinema as a whole), but also directing itself is, for Denis, “something that goes through the body. Directing and acting exist in an organic relationship similar to a dance.” (2)
Denis’ interest in orchestrating filmic choreographies of the body fuels the progression of I Can’t Sleep – especially in terms of its evocative interweaving between three loosely connected stories. Daïga (Katerina Golubeva), a young Lithuanian woman, immigrates to Paris in the hopes of becoming an actress. Théo (Alex Descas), a struggling musician, is discontentedly working in the city as an off-the-books labourer; he dreams of returning to Martinique with his young son and his estranged wife, Mona (Béatrice Dalle). Théo’s brother, Camille (Richard Courcet), is a transvestite nightclub performer, ensconced in the gay subcultures of the 18th arrondissement of Paris. Throughout the film, Camille alternates between tenderness and bouts of violence; we watch him share moments of love and aggression with his boyfriend Raphaël (Vincent Dupont), and exhibit joy, generosity and playfulness at his mother’s birthday party. However, an emotional vacancy and sleepy languor pervade Camille’s movements in and about the city. At times, Camille catches sight of his blank-faced expression in mirrored or reflective surfaces before moving on, unperturbed. About an hour into I Can’t Sleep, Camille and Raphaël are revealed as the “granny killers” who have been targeting elderly women – stealing from their victims to subsidise a lifestyle that lies beyond their own financial means.
Denis’ film was, of course, directly inspired by the real-life French serial killer case of Thierry Paulin – a young gay, HIV-positive transvestite (also an immigrant from Martinique) who, together with his lover, murdered 20 elderly women in the Montmartre neighbourhood between 1984 and 1987. On one level, I Can’t Sleep is, ostensibly, about a serial killer, yet the film’s formal restraint when it comes to the presentation of violence, together with its refusal to provide a clear-cut explanation as to “why” exactly Camille kills, suggests that Denis has little interest in the morality or interior psychology of the murders. Rather, as she states, her impetus is to make us “question ourselves what it is to be the brother, or the mother, or the neighbor of a monster” (3). Co-authored with screenwriter Jean-Pôl Fargeau, I Can’t Sleep forms the last installment of a cinematic triptych that began with Denis’ first two feature films, Chocolat (1988) and S’en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die, 1990). As with these earlier works, Denis continues to explore the legacy of colonial and post-colonial societies by concentrating upon shared experiences of displacement – through an ensemble of characters who are struggling to find, return to or willfully create a sense of “home”, possibility, passion, belonging.
The film opens with the sound of a helicopter, then reveals a shot of two policemen who are flying high above the city and laughing, uncontrollably, at an unspecified joke. We will never see these men again (although the looming presence of the police force as a potentially menacing figure of authority is alluded to, throughout). Their presence in this shot, however, neatly segues into Denis’ overarching preoccupation with bodies that move through the margins of Western societies. These are the nomadic/exiled subjects who so clearly “matter” to Denis’ cinema. As Nikolaj Lübecker aptly observes, much of this film’s action “takes place among marginalized people in Paris: Martinicans, Lithuanians, Russians and other immigrants. We also have […] homosexuals and the elderly women, so apart from the presence of a number of police officers everybody is on the periphery of French society” (4). To that end, the film soon shifts its perspective from the on-high view of the police helicopter to a ground-level scene of cars bobbing about on a busy highway. At that precise moment, the Afro-Cuban music of “canción” kicks in and the camera synchronises its movements to its jaunty orchestral score – in tandem with the peaks and lulls of the music, it floats behind one car, in particular, drawing our attention to its foreign license plates before gracefully sweeping around to reveal the female driver, Daïga, at the wheel (5).
As Judith Mayne comments, Denis deliberately frames “Daïga’s arrival into the city as if she is about to step into a dance” (6). And, indeed, Daïga is about to dance – quite literally, in a scene that occurs later in the film, where she and hotel-owner Ninon (Line Renaud) drink and move in time to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” but, figuratively as well, through the rhythmic and relational choreography between different bodies, objects and selves that so galvanises Denis’ work. Against a backdrop of violence, Denis repeatedly foregrounds scenes of entrancing gestural intimacy: the smoothing or caressing of a loved one’s hair, the act of exchanging a cigarette late into the night or huddling from the cold under a shared blanket. Here, embraces become like privately choreographed dances (as when Daïga watches a naked Camille and Raphaël from her window), while dances also function as tender embraces, often shared between individuals and their community (as when an elderly couple dance to the Afro-Caribbean music of Kali at the club where Théo performs, thereby prompting one of his few smiles). Denis’ emphasis on these small-scale and everyday gestures is, as always, heightened by the exquisite cinematography of Agnès Godard, which seems to dance, drift, rove or float about the film’s characters, never straying far from the pleasurable and painful bonds of the flesh (7).
It is fitting, then, that one of the most lyrically charged scenes of Denis’ film should centre on the body of the ambiguous “monster”, Camille, as he lip-synchs, gestures and dances in drag to “Le Lien Défait” (“The Broken Bond”) by French lyricist and composer Jean-Louis Murat. In this extraordinarily moving and phenomenologically proximate scene, Camille exudes physical grace and intensity of feeling. Against the bright blue walls of the club, clad in a slippery black velvet dress, headband and gloves, he slowly moves about, touching the walls that surround him and moving his hands in utter unison with the tempo of the song. The nightclub patrons are transfixed by Camille’s lip-synched “cry of love”, although he never once returns their look. He is, instead, completely absorbed by the rhythm and the movements of his own dance. As the camera travels down his body to reveal a touchingly barefoot performance, Camille throws open his arms, the music reaches a crescendo and it seems as if Denis’ film itself physically “swells” – as if to take in its own affectively-expanded moment. Camille then turns his back to his audience (and to us) never fully revealing his secrets. These are, however, to be found in Denis’ considered placement of “Le Lien Défait”, for its lyrics speak of lost connections. According to Denis, the loss of intimacy or connection embodies “the film’s central theme because a society and a city work best when [its] links are tight. For me, life is a story of connections – without them society will destruct.” (8) Even society’s “monsters” feel that loss.
- See Martine Beugnet, Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2007.
- Denis in Mark A. Reid, “Claire Denis Interview: Colonial Observations”, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media no. 40, March 1996, pp. 67-72.
- Denis in Judith Mayne, Claire Denis, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 2005, p. 82.
- Nikolaj Lübecker, “The Dedramatization of Violence in Claire Denis’ I Can’t Sleep”, Paragraph vol. 30, no. 2, 2007, p. 23.
- According to Denis, this was “the very first image I had for the film […] a young woman from another country driving to Paris, knowing nothing, and meeting public enemy #1, Camille”. See Denis in Reid.
- Mayne, p. 85.
- On the phenomenon of floating or drifting in Denis’ cinema see Lübecker, p. 25 and Adrian Martin, “Ticket to Ride: Claire Denis and the Cinema of the Body”, Screening the Past no. 20, 2006: http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/20/clairedenis.html.
- Denis in Reid.