I Can’t Sleep, 1994

On her way to Paris, an attractive, young Lithuanian woman named Daiga (Yekaterina Golubeva) scans through the local radio stations in search of ambient driving music, distractedly tuning in on a trivialized, inappropriately jovial news broadcast of the latest victim of the elusive “granny killer”, before resuming the station’s youthful, upbeat music programming. The film then cuts to an unconnected shot of a young man named Camille (Richard Courcet) having a violent quarrel with his lover, and in a subsequent episode, spending the evening at the apartment of his older brother, Théo (Alex Descas) and his young son, Harry. Théo, a pensive violinist struggling with single fatherhood as a result of his French lover, Mona’s (Béatrice Dalle) extended absences from home, is determined to emigrate to Martinique, causing further friction on their already strained relationship. Meanwhile, Daiga has arrived in Paris, stops by a coffee shop for a snack, and attempts to make a telephone call to an acquaintance named Sacha (Kamil Tchalaev) in an attempt to contact an opportunistic stage producer, later revealed to have insincerely flattered her with empty promises of acting jobs (undoubtedly in exchange for sexual favors). Returning to her car, she is harassed by two plain clothes officers who follow her from the coffee shop to admonish her for parking illegally, as well as inappropriately flirt with the young, and seemingly naïve, immigrant. Unable to reach her employment contact, Daiga arrives unexpectedly at her aunt’s apartment, where, coincidentally, the body of the latest victim has been discovered, and eventually finds work as a cleaning woman for a Latvian hotel owner. Eventually, Daiga’s recurring and seemingly fated peripheral connections to the serial murders emerge, despite her own unconcern and oblivion towards the targeted, brutal crimes.

Claire Denis presents a haunting and understatedly compelling meditation on longing, estrangement, and disconnection in I Can’t Sleep. Using fragmented, often unresolved episodes, narrative ellipses, and tangential encounters, Denis creates a melancholic and sensual tapestry on cultural division and marginalization (issues that Michael Haneke would similarly explore in a subsequent film, Code Inconnu): Daiga’s limited knowledge of French is repeatedly exploited by others for personal gain; the neighbors’ continued distrust of Théo after he interrupts an episode of domestic violence; Camille’s volatile relationship with his lover that is paralleled in Théo and Mona’s unstable relationship; the vulnerable, often solitary existence of the elderly victims. By tracing the aimless, desperate, and isolated lives of social outsiders, I Can’t Sleep becomes an evocative, richly textured, and deeply disturbing contemporary ballad on the pervasive nature of violence and the difficulty of assimilation in an increasingly alienating modern society.

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