Claire Denis’ “I Can’t Sleep” is a probing walk through the expatriate communities of Paris. While its realistic setting is revealing, film lacks an emotional hook to involve the viewer in its characters’ fates. Well-made but rather cold picture is unlikely to attract the attention of the director’s 1988 “Chocolate” but should be of interest to speciality markets.
Film establishes two storylines that casually overlap from time to time. In one, a plucky young Lithuanian actress, Daiga (Katherina Golubeva), drives into town in her beaten-up Russian car, following the empty promises of a theater director with whom she apparently had an affair. Unable to speak French, she is sheltered by relatives and friends, who find her lodging in a small hotel and a job as a chambermaid.
Second thread involves an extended family from Martinique. The grave Theo (Alex Descas), a musician, supports himself and his small daughter by doing carpentry jobs for snooty Parisians. He is about to move back to the Caribbean, over the strident protests of the child’s mother (Beatrice Dalle). His brother Camille (Richard Courcet), who is introed wearing makeup and fish-net stockings, has chosen to live on the wild side. In a scene reminiscent of “The Crying Game, ” he sings torch songs in drag in a gay club and sleeps in Daiga’s hotel with his doctor/lover.
Once she has established sympathy for Camille, considered by everyone a polite nice guy, Denis gradually pulls open a curtain on the underbelly of his life: a drug problem, AIDS treatment and a nasty habit of breaking into apartments and murdering old ladies. He strangles his victims quickly and almost painlessly while an accomplice hunts for loot. Denis chooses to recount these adventures as neutrally and non-judgmentally as if the characters were drinking a cup of coffee, making it strangely difficult to condemn the murderer. On the other hand, helmer does raise sympathy for Camille’s victims.
Long before the police hunt down Camille, Daiga realizes who he is, and follows him one day out of curiosity and vague amusement. Even when his mother is called to the police station, her horrified reaction is immediately diluted by pity and sorrow, which seems to reflect the filmmaker’s attitude.
The film admirably goes beyond racism (which nevertheless lies menacingly in the background) to show expatriates deeply embedded in their own Parisian milieus. The matter-of-fact way they’re viewed is a key to film’s exploration of Paris’ night denizens and crime, of which they can be perpetrators or victims. Slant is original but has the major disadvantage of being rather dull to watch.
Acting is restrained and unexciting. With the exception of Dalle, who strenuously fights to have her husband and daughter stay with her in Paris, the main thesps are alarmingly inexpressive. Golubeva walks through her role like a beautiful, mysterious, chain-smoking sphinx. Her dialogue is necessarily limited by the language problem (a large part of the film is in subtitled Russian). But even when she gets mad — for example, revenging herself against the stage director who snubs her — she remains distant.
Descas and Courcet, likewise, are men of few words. Their feelings seem to run deep, but Denis and co-scripter Jean-Pol Fargeau never explore exactly what those feelings are. A metaphor for the filmmakers’ project appears in a brief scene in a hospital morgue, where pathologists view pieces of skin from a corpse (presumably one of Camille’s victims) under a microscope. It may be a modern and efficient way to study human beings, but the effect is antiseptic.
On the plus side is Agnes Godard’s subtle camera work and an almost subliminal musical comment by John Pattison.