Only (Dis)Connect; and Never Relaxez-Vous; or, ‘I Can’t Sleep’
By Robin Wood.
Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression, Part 2 (Read Part 1 here.)
What it isn’t
I have before me two statements about I Can’t Sleep(J’ai pas sommeil, 1994) by reputable and intelligent critics: 1. On the cover of the video, Georgia Brown (who used to write for The Village Voice) is quoted: ‘A rich and startling noir that manages to evoke Wenders and Jarmusch at the same time as Chabrol and Hitchcock’; Martine Beugnet, Claire Denis, in the French Film Directors series published by Manchester University Press: ‘J’ai pas sommeil plays on the conventions of the noir genre…’ ( Introduction, Page 1). Much as I respect (in their very different ways) both writers, I find these descriptions misleading. Any connection to Wenders, Jarmusch and Chabrol seems to me merely tenuous and unhelpful, but connecting the film to Hitchcock seems perverse in the extreme. One might see it as the anti-Hitchcock par excellence, the only connection being that one of the film’s characters is a serial killer. Hitchcock’s art is based solidly on the principle of spectator identification, which Denis absolutely forbids; point-of-view shots are rare, and their function when they occur is simply to show us what the character is looking at. Hitchcock’s serial killer films (from The Lodger  through to Frenzy ) play upon suspense, and upon our early knowledge or suspicion of the killer’s identity, while Denis scrupulously avoids any suggestion that her characters are in imminent danger and any hint of his identity until the abrupt and casual revelation in the film’s final third, up to which point the murders are merely a news item, part of the urban environment. The most we might wonder is whether one of the elderly women (Daiga’s aunt, or Douchka the hotel owner) might become a victim, though nothing tells us to expect such a development. Is any film about a serial killer now ‘Hichcockian’? As for ‘the conventions of the noir genre’, they are (as I understand it): black-and-white photography with high-key lighting, shadows, dark corridors, darker alleys, bad weather, rain-washed streets, the essential femme fatale, a pervasive sense of corruption and double-dealing in which nobody can be trusted, the double-cross, a plot centred on money, power and greed, not one of which can be found in Denis’ film. What is striking about I Can’t Sleep, despite its serial killer plotline (merely one of several), is its systematic refusal of the ‘conventions of the noir genre’.
Confessions of an Incompetent Film Critic
For people of my generation, who grew up in the 1940s/50s on an exclusive diet of classical Hollywood cinema (with the occasional British movie), the European ‘arthouse’ cinema always presented problems which linger on even today, a simple basic one being that of following the plot. This is not because the plot is necessarily complex or obscure, but, frequently, because of the way in which the characters are introduced and the action presented. When I grew up there was remarkably little serious criticism available (not much beyond the weekly reviews), and film studies courses in schools or universities were not even thought of. I was seventeen when I saw my first foreign language film (Torment/Frenzy [Hets, 1944], by Alf Sjöberg, from an early but already characteristic screenplay by Ingmar Bergman). I knew from the reviews that it would carry me far beyond anything I had seen previously, both in style and subject-matter, and my hand was trembling when I bought my ticket. I believe I had great difficulty following it (my first subtitles, not to mention extreme psychological disturbance). Fifty-five years later I still have the same problem when confronted with the films of Claire Denis (or Michael Haneke, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien…). The habits acquired during one’s formative years are never quite cast off; when I showed I Can’t Sleep to a graduate film group last year, my students corrected me over a number of details and pointed out many things I hadn’t noticed, although this was their first viewing of the film and I had already watched it three times. A classical Hollywood film – however intelligent and complex – is dependent on its surface level upon ‘popular’ appeal and its action must be fully comprehensible to a general audience at one viewing, covering all levels of educatedness from the illiterate to the university professor. (The same was of course true of the Elizabethan theatre – see, for example, the conventions of the soliloquy and the aside, wherein a character explains his/her motivation, reactions or thoughts to the audience). One of the cardinal rules was that every plot point must be doubly articulated, in both the action and the dialogue; another was the use of the cut to close-up that tells us ‘This character is important’; yet another, the presence of instantly recognizable stars or character actors. All of these Denis systematically denies us. It is a part of her great distinction that her films (and especially I Can’t Sleep, arguably her masterpiece to date) demand intense and continuous mental activity from the spectator: we are not to miss a single detail or to pass over a gesture or facial expression, even if it is shown in long shot within an ensemble, with no ‘helpful’ underlining and no ‘spelling out’ in dialogue.
It is the particular distinction of Denis’ cinema that sets it apart from – almost, indeed, in opposition to – the work of many of our most celebrated ‘arthouse’ directors: Bergman, for example, or Fellini or Antonioni. Their films are rooted in autobiography – not necessarily in any literal sense, but in terms of personal introspection – whereas Denis left autobiography behind with Chocolat, and even that film is notable for its poise and critical distance, its objectivity. Where Bergman or Fellini seems to be saying to us ‘Come with me and I’ll tell you my secrets, share my experiences – how I feel about things, my thoughts about existence’, Denis issues a very different invitation to the spectator: ‘Come with me and we’ll play a game, albeit a serious one. Let’s see how much you can notice in what I decide to show you, how you interpret what you see and hear, what connections you can make, how much can be explained and how much remains mysterious and uncertain, as so much in our lives remains unclear. I’ll allow you a certain leeway of interpretation, because I don’t always understand everything myself, not even my own creations, though I’ll be as precise as possible…’ A few examples from the film’s first ten minutes will illustrate various aspects of this.
1. The film opens (pre-credits) in the interior of a police helicopter, in which two cops are helplessly convulsed with laughter over a joke one of them has just told. We are not let in on the joke, though one of the cops, between spasms, gasps out the odd unintelligible phrase, which may or not be the punch line. Accordingly, we are denied participation in their merriment and left free to speculate – about their duties, and about their possible relevance to whatever is about to happen. They are above open country, far too high to be able to make out details, presumably on some kind of highway patrol, but not paying the least attention to anything outside the cockpit, spending their time (and the taxpayers’ money) on joke-telling. We feel frustrated at not being let in on the humour, but their laughter is so prolonged that it becomes contagious: we almost begin to laugh with them, if somewhat uncertainly, and may reflect that they need some relaxation from a generally boring job (Denis is the least puritanical of filmmakers). These two policemen never reappear in the film or have any apparent connection to anything (they can hardly be searching for the ‘Granny Killer’ way out in the country over open meadows). Two other pairs of policemen do, however, turn up subsequently, but again do not exactly inspire great confidence: the couple who twice encounter Daiga (the first time when she, in a strange country, has left her car in a No Parking spot, the second time by chance) and treat her brusquely, with no consideration for her foreignness; and the pair who, near the end of the film, intercept Camille and take him into custody, but only after Daiga has recognized him from the sketches at the police station and guessed his secret. If the film has anything even remotely Hitchcockian about it, it is perhaps this scepticism about the efficacy of the police.
2. ‘Relaxez-vous’. With the cops still laughing we cut to an aerial view (from inside the helicopter) of the highway glimpsed through clouds on a dull day, then to road level, singling out a nondescript, far from new car, its rear window almost covered by baggage, the cast credits superimposed (alphabetically); woman driver, cigarette drooping from mouth. We shall come to know her as Daiga, from Lithuania, but at this stage our only clue is the piled luggage, which tells us only that she has been on a long journey and may be foreign. She switches on the car radio, a news item about the ‘Granny Killer’, the voice jovial and offhand, treating the serial murders of elderly women as something of a joke; it’s just heard by accident, with no sudden underpinning of sinister nondiegetic background music to tell us ‘This is a major plot thread’. Then another station: Dean Martin is singing ‘Relaxez-vous’ (‘The more you earn/The less you learn/To relaxez-vous’). The sound is cut off abruptly as the car (now in long shot) drives up a narrow Paris street, Sacre-Coeur visible in the distance, at the top of its hill. In the foreground a woman comes out of an unprepossessing apartment building and throws water on the street. Flies buzz on a window, the interior of an apartment shows signs of a struggle, and there is a just discernible corpse sprawled on the floor in the murky room. Cut back to car, the young woman now studying a street map, a French woman’s voice continuing the song on the radio (‘We French you’ll find/Are more inclined/To relaxez-vous’): temporially and geographically impossible (do we notice?) but cinematically pleasing continuity, the two versions of the song nicely bracketing the casual intrusion of the corpse into the apparently inconsequential narrative. The juxtaposition (song/serial murders/relaxation) has its immediate ironic effect, but if we think back over the film after we’ve seen it (which every Denisian device encourages us to do, the film resembling an extremely intricate jigsaw in which every smallest piece is felt to have its significance, but a jigsaw that exists in time and memory, not spread out on a table for our overall contemplation), we may find more in ‘relaxez-vous’ than a fleeting moment of irony. There are only two scenes in the entire film where people completely relax together: that of the two cops sharing their joke in the helicopter (a scene which proves to have no narrative consequence or significance whatever), and the scene in which Daiga and her elderly Lithuanian benefactress Douchka (hotel owner, instructress in self-defence for elderly women under threat) get drunk and dance together. This discovery may in its turn lead us to an important – perhaps the leading – thread of the film’s complex and to some extent elusive thematic: both scenes are same-sex but non-sexual (though Douchka, by the end of the dance, is becoming very affectionate, perhaps because Daiga is standing in for the men who are no longer interested in her). All the overtly sexual relationships (whether gay or straight) – Daiga and the theatrical producer, Mona (Beatrice Dalle) and Theo (Alex Descas), the gay triangle of Camille, his lover, the blonde doctor – are characterized by tension, anger, recriminations, and (in the cases of the first and third) physical violence – to which one must also add the marginal figures of domestic abuse, the husband and wife in the apartment next to Theo’s.
3. Camille and company. Perhaps the best example of Denis’ departure from the shooting/editing conventions of classical Hollywood – her insistence that the audience work, notice, remember – is the introduction of the pivotal character of Camille (Richard Courcet). From the last, brief, quotation of ‘Relaxez-vous’ Denis cuts to a flight of stone steps (Sacre-Cœur again in the background, closer, we are higher up), with three figures descending in long shot. They approach a parked car, still in long shot, their backs to us. One of them, a young black (but pale-skinned) man in a white suit, is deliberately shut out; he bangs on the car door, a tall, thin white man gets out. I doubt whether the actors were identifiable even in France. Denis cuts, not to a closer shot, but to a couple of garbage collectors emptying garbage cans into their truck, with no clear spatial connection. Cut back to car: the black man, still in long shot, is shut out again, banging on the door; the tall white man gets out again, there is a fight, the black man kicks the car as it moves off, abandoning him, the garbage truck following just behind it. Dialogue throughout is inaudible or indecipherable, we are permitted no insights into the nature of the men’s relationship or the grounds of their quarrel, neither do we get a close look at any of them. Behaviour, gesture, movement are precisely rendered, yet all explanatory information is withheld. Twenty minutes of screen time go by before we discover that the black man and the tall white man are lovers and that they have a room in the hotel in which Daiga is also by then installed, nothing leads us to suspect that the black man is the Granny Killer until about twenty minutes from the film’s end. The nearest thing to a ‘point’ being made is the brief juxtaposition (and exchanged glances) of Camille (as we later know him) in his smart white suit and the two garbage collectors, who are also black.
4. Enter Beatrice Dalle. I Can’t Sleep is structured upon three intertwining plot-lines, each centred upon a sexual relationship: the Camille/lover/doctor triangle; Daiga and her search for the theatrical producer with whom she shared what was apparently a one-night stand; and the troubled relationship of Camille’s brother Theo, who wants to return to Martinique, his wife Mona, who doesn’t, and their young child (who at first looks like a girl but is identified in the dialogue as their son Harry). Jumping ahead, I want to single out the introduction of Beatrice Dalle, as an extreme instance of Denis’ play with audience recognition, expectation and deduction. Denis is credited as Jim Jarmusch’s assistant director in Down by Law (1986); she revealed in an interview that she ‘discovered’ Dalle in the Paris episode of Jarmusch’s subsequent Night on Earth (1991). Dalle is the nearest thing to a familiar face in I Can’t Sleep, aside perhaps from Descas, who had already worked for Denis in No Fear, No Die (1990).
She is introduced in a single isolated shot, typically without explanation or identification, seated in an open air cafe, smoking, chewing her thumbnail, as if trying to come to a decision about something; we are given no clue as to who she is, though Theo and their child have already appeared in extended earlier scenes. The shot shows her in profile, looking right; it is followed immediately by a similar shot of Daiga in the street, also in profile, also looking right, which suggests that she is looking at Mona, though the spatial relationship is by no means clear – she could, for all we are offered, be in a different street. The moment suggests the possibility of a meeting, some future relationship; in fact, the two women never meet or have any connection in the film: a fascinating instance of Denis’ play with the viewer’s perceptions and assumptions. What is in fact set up here is not a relationship between the two women but a parallel: both are involved with men who reject their demands, while (typically, of relationships in Denis’ films) the rights and wrongs of those demands are by no means clear-cut. Once again, Denis is inviting the spectator into the film as an active participant.
‘I’m a stranger here myself’
The fascination exerted by Denis’ films (and supremely in I Can’t Sleep) lies in a complexity and delicacy of attitude so extreme as almost to defy precise definition. There is the distance from all her characters, certainly, a seemingly impartial, all-encompassing distance that the spectator is encouraged to share. But this is qualified by an implicit and equally pervasive sympathy and generosity: no one is condemned (though in extreme cases we may condemn their actions, which are frequently misguided or destructive), the generosity – the affection – extends both to the elderly women who practise self-defence in Douchka’s class and to their potential murderer. Nor is this a case of ‘Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardoner’: Camille’s murders are certainly not condoned or excused. It’s an attitude to human life so bewildering in its complexity that it could easily degenerate into a Bergmanesque despair, but Denis is too strong for that, her stance of sympathetic but impartial observer forbids it, she never loses her poise. Therein lies the extraordinary nature of her achievement: she offers, uniquely, a way of looking, which takes precedence over (and encompasses) any definable thematic. And this generosity toward her characters finds its visible and tangible expression through her detailed and sympathetic direction of actors, all of whom seem willing to give, to share, to participate in an ensemble in which there are no ‘stars’, no competition for the spotlight, no intrusive egos. Or, if you prefer, it’s an art of direction (cooperative, never domineering) in which everyone is a star, down to the smallest ‘bit’ player. Reseeing the film many times, trying to formulate some communicable account of its magic, I became fascinated by the sequence of the self-defence class, playing it again and again, each time watching a different portion of the screen. Every one of the old women (mere ‘extras’, briefly glimpsed, unnamed, with no dialogue) is a living character, with her own individual reaction, her own particular kind of amusement and participation, every segment of the screen is alive.
The simultaneous distance and involvement is in fact inseparable from the Denis thematic, which has two major components: alienation and transgression. This was already clear in Chocolat, where the fundamental falseness of colonialism turned everyone, black or white, into an alienated person and where the crossing of boundaries that have no right to exist could lead only to disaster. I Can’t Sleep carries the principle much further, Denis creating a society in which none of its members really belongs. All the central characters are aliens, with no sense of belonging, either by foreignness (Daiga, Douchka, their fellow Lithuanians in the overcrowded apartment), by colour (the black brothers, one of whom is apparently an illegal immigrant, the other a casual murderer of harmless old women, ostensibly for their presumed hordes of money), or by their unstable personal situation (Mona, with her black child, uncertain whether or not to end the relationship with Theo). The film opens (almost) with Daiga entering Paris and ends with her leaving it; even her car is apparently stolen. Theo plans to leave for Martinique, which he sees as his native land though his image of it appears to come from travel brochures. From Chocolat (1988) right through to Beau Travail (1999) and Trouble Every Day (2001), almost all Denis’ characters are displaced persons inhabiting a world of displaced persons. At the heart of all this is Camille, the gay transvestite with a woman’s name (according to one of the cops who finally pick him up, though the cop seems to have forgotten that it was the name also of one of France’s leading male composers). One quality no one will accuse Denis of lacking is audacity (another is intelligence). In 1993, at the height of ‘political correctness’, to make a film in which a serial killer of helpless elderly women is both black and gay shows something beyond audacity: defiance. Remarkably, in the event, no one I think will accuse her of being anti-black or anti-gay on the evidence of this film, without even the need to take into account, for example, Chocolat, No Fear, No Die or Beau Travail. Camille is presented sympathetically throughout, even in the climactic scene where a policeman reads him the formidable list of old women he has killed, and without the slightest sense of special pleading, exonerating circumstances or conventional excuses (abused child, etc…). On no grounds are his actions excused, yet he remains, precisely, the Camille we have come to know (somewhat) and have found generally attractive and sympathetic. Denis never narrows down his motivation, beyond the surely insufficient one of needing money. If there is an explanation it is simply that, in an environment of alienated people, he is triply alienated – gay, black, and probably doomed by AIDS (the mark on his cheek, his visit to the doctor’s clinic). He exists, in what seems a state of perpetual uncertainty and bewilderment, somewhere outside any ‘normal’ human feeling or conventional moral sense. But Denis never judges, she simply presents, without acquittals or convictions, praise or blame. The rest is up to the spectator.
Denis and Dialogue: What is said – what is left unsaid – what can’t be said – what we can safely interpret from silences
One of the first things that strike you about Denis’ movies is that she keeps dialogue as sparse as possible. Though seldom visually flamboyant, these are highly visual films, framing, acting, movement, expressions, composition, telling us more than is ever spoken. Unless you count ‘Relaxez-vous’ and the news bulletin there is no intelligible dialogue in the first seven minutes of I Can’t Sleep. Strikingly, throughout the film, Camille’s dialogue is especially minimal. This might be interpreted as a way of concealing his identity as the Granny Killer, but it is less a dramatic convenience than a statement of his character: he is too confused, too uncertain about who he is and what he does – too afraid of what he might learn about himself – to be capable of formulating himself in verbal expression. He is eloquent only when, on stage, he can hide behind a public persona that at once expresses his finer self (sensitive, troubled, deeply hurt and insecure) and conceals the dark side (from himself as well as from the world). The sequence of concise, enigmatic scenes that precedes the climactic unravelling provides a fine example of Denisian inexplicitness, her refusal to spell things out, her insistence that the spectator work:
1. We see Camille in the waiting room at the doctor’s clinic, looking troubled, the mark on his cheek prominent; a nurse comes up: ‘It’s ready’. We are not told what ‘it’ is (a test result? a medicine? An early attempt at an AIDS ‘cocktail’? – the film was released in 1994).
2. Theo with Mona and their child. He has his violin (the first indication that he is a musician), she has bought him new shoes for a performance. He tries them on, she realizes (against his expressions of pleasure) that they are too tight. He chooses what seems to be a propitious moment for a return gift – he has bought the tickets for Martinique. Furious (she has never agreed to go), she throws his clothes off the balcony.
3. Peace made, a meal, Mona’s mother now present. Theo describes the idyllic life on Martinique (‘You live nude all day there. It’s paradise’). Mona glares across the table.
4. Camille arrives, an interruption, but doesn’t move beyond the doorway: ‘I want to ask you something.’ He then falls silent, unable to continue. We never know what he was going to ask (or tell, perhaps?): That he has AIDS and needs help and support? That he wants to go to Martinique with Theo? That – doomed himself – he is the ‘Granny Killer’ (though the spectator doesn’t know this yet)? He leaves without revealing what he came for.
5. Theo goes out to the apartment balcony, watching his brother pass along the sidewalk below. 6. The subway platform, Camille on bench. Theo appears, gives him money. He accepts it, but tells him ‘That’s not what I came for’.
7. Camille on the dance floor of a darkly lit gay club, lights flashing.
8. Back to Theo – showdown with Mona. She slaps him violently, they fight over the child.
9. Camille buying drugs in the street.
10. Mona, with the child, to the apartment building of a friend to whom she has apparently fled before. Friend: ‘This isn’t a fucking hotel.’
11. Camille with his lover (who shows signs of wanting to end the relationship). They express a somewhat desperate, precarious commitment.
12 and 13: Two murders, both men participating (the revelation that Camille is the killer). Clearly, far more is implied here than is stated in the sparse dialogue: the uneasy relationship between the brothers, in which so much is left unsaid and always has been; the parallel problems in their lives, the different kinds of stress that shut each up in his own problem so that communication or empathy is impossible; the underlying desperation that might unite but in fact separates them. And where is the spectator in all this? With Theo, in his desire for a better life, however unrealistic his expectations? With Mona, because she is more realistic, even though she seems to have nowhere to go, both literally and metaphorically? With Camille, who may be facing a death sentence (from AIDS, as we don’t know that he is a serial killer yet!)? It is, I think, one of the film’s structuring principles that Denis never allows us to take sides.
The climactic final encounter between Daiga and Camille in the bar immediately prior to his arrest, in which only nine simple banal words are spoken, provides an even more fascinating example of Denis’ art. At this point we recognize that Camille is approaching some kind of disintegration, and we know that Daiga has seen the ‘Wanted’ notice with the easily recognizable sketches in the police station and knows he is the killer (though he doesn’t know she knows, prior to his intuitive understanding). Though she has been aware of him before (seeing, in fact, he and his lover, naked, embracing, on an upper floor, from her window in the hotel), they have never communicated in any way. When he comes out of the hotel she follows him at a distance, then sits beside him at the bar (‘A coffee please’). He becomes aware of her, passes her the sugar. Then one of Denis’ extremely rare cut-ins to close-up: their hands touch, and momentarily pause. The moment of touch conveys that he knows that she knows, and her recognition of this. She says ‘Merci’. He tells the bartender ‘I’ll pay for both’. She says again ‘Merci’. He leaves, walks the streets, is recognized and picked up. That shot (a few seconds) of their hands touching and not immediately withdrawing has become for me one of the most poignant moments in modern cinema, though I don’t think I even noticed or registered it on my first viewings (it is extremely brief), and though I can’t describe confidently just what its effect is. One alienated human being recognizing another, and breaking through the barrier for a single fleeting moment, while recognizing that it is the first and last of such moments? There are many nights when I can’t sleep, either.
Closures… openings… continuations
Since the explosion of the semiotics movement in the ‘60s, we have heard a lot about closure in the arts, especially in cinema. A film is expected to end in closure of one kind or another, the commonest and most banal being the ‘I’ll take you home now’, or (marginally less possessive in wording but scarcely in meaning), ‘We can go home how’ – typically spoken by the man to the woman, its function being the restoration of the ‘good couple’, who will perpetuate the mess we have for so long found ourselves in, confirming the ‘rightness’ of the dominant ideology. And it is true: most of our movies end in ‘closure’ of that nature, more or less presented as ‘the happy ending’ (there are numerous ironic inflections). Closure can, of course, also be tragic, or (for example) the lovers who seemed made for each other can go back and do their duty by their respective spouses and children. In any case it is closure. Of course this has all the obvious ideological supports and demands, fundamental to the continuation of our culture as it is, Heaven (if there is such a thing) help us.
Denis’ films call all this into question. Yes, in I Can’t Sleep the Granny Killer is caught, the culprits exposed and (one may safely assume) sentenced to life imprisonment (which in Camille’s case may not be that long), and Daiga has had the satisfaction of ramming the car of the guy who she thought was going to become her lover and get her established in Paris theatre. Yet neither of these endings offers even the most conservative audience much satisfaction, and the third plotline (Theo/Mona/child) is left completely unresolved. Daiga was, clearly, taken advantage of, but her expectations of results seem to have been more professional than romantic, and her lover’s acceptance of his wrecked car, if short of a gallant gesture, has been more generous than what, under the circumstances, we might expect. As for Camille, despite his heinous crimes, do we really feel self-righteous satisfaction in what will be the (probably quite brief and certainly unpleasant) remainder of his life? If ‘closure’ is supposed to send the spectator home with a sense of satisfaction, Claire Denis’ films never very convincingly supply it.
But there is more than that to be said about this need for closure: a metaphysical yearning beyond, and far deeper than, the kind of satisfactions our traditional ‘happy endings’ supply. Each of us faces his or her own personal closure, yet we die never knowing the endings of all those narratives (from the most trivial to the all-encompassing) in which our lives have been involved. What could be more frustrating? I (for example) have already overstepped the biblically prescribed boundary of ‘three score years and ten’ from whose bourne no traveller returns, so could pop off any day now. (On the other hand, I could follow the examples of my parents and three out of four older siblings and last another 15-20 years). There are so many scenarios I would like to see reach closure before I go. It seems not altogether unreasonable to hope that I may live to see President Bush lose the next election in a landslide, as it’s only a few months away, but what about the world revolution that will overthrow corporate capitalism and all other forms of fascist or quasi-fascist (i.e. what our governments like to call ‘democratic’) tyranny, government of the people by the wealthy and for the wealthy? It could take several more generations, by which time global warming or another nuclear war may have pre-empted it by ending life on the planet (which would, I suppose, be the only definitive closure).
So I love Denis’ usual attitude to closure, of which I Can’t Sleep offers no less than three variants:
1. Full closure: Camille. (But is it really ‘full’? Closure is supposed to leave one satisfied, and I like Camille sufficiently to wish I could take him home with me, see him through his last months, look after him and see that he doesn’t murder any more old women).
2. Partial closure/a new start: Daiga. She’s got her theatrical producer out of her system, taken her revenge, and can move on to wherever she’s going (about which she seems to know no more than we do).
3. No closure. Theo/Mona/Harry. We are not sure whether Mona is surrendering the child to Theo, trusting that a life on Martinique will be more fulfilling, whether she has decided to go with them, or whether she is simply going back to fight things out all over again. All we know is that it will not be easy.
As soon as I finished writing the above I read Martine Beugnet’s analysis of the film (in the book cited at the beginning). I should explain that when I write about a film I carefully avoid reading what anyone else has said about it, and therefore scrupulously avoided that chapter. What fascinates me (and constitutes my own personal view of criticism) is the relationship between the critic and the work, and the task of defining that relationship; I want no intermediaries. Writing about a film (or any work of art) is therefore a deeply personal matter, and I set aside anything that might intrude upon it. (I am also very easily intimidated – if I read someone else’s account of a film that differs from my own I habitually assume that I must be wrong, and if they say more or less what I was going to say they render me superfluous). I recommend Bergnet’s reading of the film strongly – I have learnt a lot from it. One point that arises from her background and research may be felt to affect my reading quite radically: before reading her, I did not know that Camille’s character is based quite closely upon an actual serial killer of elderly women, a recent cause celebre in France. It is therefore quite possible that French audiences would pick up on this within the film’s opening sequences, associating Camille with the dead body. I presume that by this point in her career Denis was making films for audiences beyond France, and that she must have realized that her film would be read differently in other countries. I therefore continue to believe my reading valid – at least for non-French audiences. And the film’s structure supports me in this: if Denis assumed that everyone would know Camille was the murderer from the start, why keep this as a surprise, almost casual, revelation half an hour from the end?
Robin Wood was a groundbreaking critic and historian of cinema.
Robin Wood’s essays in Film International 2003-07:
1. ‘Irreversible: Against and For’, 2003:5 (vol. 1, no. 5)
2. ‘Revenge is Sweet: The Bitterness of Audition‘, 2004:1 (vol. 2, no. 7)
3. ‘Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression, Part 1′, 2004:3 (vol. 2, no. 9)
4. ‘Only (Dis)Connect and Never Relaxez-Vouz, Or I Can’t Sleep. Claire Denis: Cinema of Transgression, Part 2′, 2004:5 (vol. 2, no. 11)
5. ‘The Heroism of Disobediance and Deceit: Where is the Friend’s Home?‘, 2005:2 (vol. 3, no. 14)
6. ‘Exodus Collides with the Kedma‘, 2005:6 (vol. 3, no. 18)
7. ‘The Skull Beneath the Skin: Patrice Chéreau and Son Frère‘, 2006:3 (vol. 4, no. 21)
8. ‘Wild Reeds: A Film of the Past for Our Future’, 2006:5 (vol. 4, no. 23)
9. ‘From Ruggles to Rally; or, America! America! The Strange Career of Leo McCarey’, 2007.3 (vol. 5, no. 27)