I Can't Sleep June 9, 2022
1 Hr., 50 Mins.
n Claire Denis’ I Can’t Sleep (1994), a serial killer is on the prowl. He, or she, is targeting single elderly women — the media has gone with “the granny killer” as its front-page nickname of choice — and you can feel the unease in the air in the radius of Paris on which the murderer has descended. Even if you don’t become a victim yourself, there’s no telling whether that next target will be a relative or a neighbor. Self-defense
classes thronged with fearful women of a certain age have become in demand.
You can rely on Denis to shirk the obvious in her filmmaking. She tends to work in understatement — tell her stories elliptically, never with force. Not surprisingly for the Denis-acquainted, then, I Can’t Sleep turns out not to resemble what we think of when we think of a serial-killer movie, which most of the time takes a conventionally thrilling police procedural’s form and is made more nerve-wracking because of peeks here and there into what the killer is up to as the police try to catch up with them. Denis’ film is more a downplayed ensemble piece where serial murder is first a backdrop, then an unsensationalized character trait once the killer’s identity is made explicit.
I Can’t Sleep pings back and forth between a handful of immigrant characters struggling to acclimate to Paris. Daiga (Yekaterina Golubeva), positioned as the film’s protagonist, has recently come from Lithuania to pursue an acting career, but only finds herself frustrated and alienated by her difficulty communicating in a second language and by the lack of luck gaining inroads into her profession of choice. (To earn money, Daiga works as a maid in a family friend-owned hotel.) Theo (Alex Descas) has been here for a while now — and he has a wife (Béatrice Dalle) and kid — but he desperately wants to go back to Martinique, something his spouse adamantly won’t go for. Theo’s brother Camille (Richard Courcet), an out gay man, on the surface seems the best-adjusted of these characters. But, as the film’s promotional materials — particularly the poster — make clear (Denis apparently didn’t think of it like a spoiler), Camille is actually the one responsible for the murders, assisted by his lover.
I Can’t Sleep can be frustrating to watch, if only because Denis’ lifelike dramatic methods, inordinately appreciative of everyday tedium and stretches of silence, can feel almost too oblique for the kind of story from which we’re accustomed to expect some salacious excitement. But once you settle into her subdued approach, the movie clicks, proving itself one of the better-conceived films attempting to make sense of how a serial killer could do such heinous things.
Denis doesn’t attempt, problematically, to get sympathetic to the point of trivializing lost life. Nor does she — as I’d initially been uneasy about — ever suggest that the marginalized identities Camille possesses are in some ways indicative of a natural deviousness. Instead, her detachedly observational, as-is style imparts how relentless societal othering (Camille is Black, gay, and HIV-positive) can potentially manifest uglily when grin-and-bear-it internalization becomes too much. (The other principal characters in I Can’t Sleep will also find moments of catharsis through avenues likely to be cast in judgment.) This is by-and-large hard-to-like movie, but Denis’ work is too unforgettable for it not to make an impression. She transforms the serial-killer movie from something relied on for gruesome suspense into something far more thoughtful and considered. B+