Almost any subject can benefit from a fresh approach. With the application of fantastical or pragmatic elements, a novel design of otherwise standard narrative conceits, or a decidedly different point of view, even the most formulaic film can seem new and alive. When John McNaughton decided to approach the psychotic murderer genre from a matter of fact, skid row strategy, the result was the amazing, malevolent, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. David Lynch filters all of his films through his own skewed idea of cinematic cohesion and artistic storytelling. Even the most simplistic of stories seems strangely surreal in this amazing auteur's hands. Someone like Quentin Tarantino gets a great deal of mileage out of reimagining the foundations of film, whether it's the mobster (Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs) or monster (From Dusk 'til Dawn, Natural Born Killers) movie. Indeed, he has become the benchmark for all other independent filmmakers, told that by simply messing with the mainstays, they can get very far – and an Academy Award – in an otherwise insular industry.
But not every original scheme meets with success. Francis Ford Copolla wanted to make a throwback to the classic glamour of the Hollywood backlot films from the 40s and 50s with the aid of modern technology and unlimited artistic inspiration. The resulting ret-trocity – 1980's One from the Heart – bankrupted his studio, Zoetrope, and set his career back several years. Even as his take on drug abuse redefined heroin chic, Danny Boyle blew all his Trainspotting clout on a dumb idea for a romantic comedy road movie. The ensuing fiasco, A Life Less Ordinary, proved that no amount of cheek or whimsy could save a decidedly stupid premise (angels intervene to help a kidnap victim and her captor fall in love – yeesh!) from crashing in on itself. Now we can add J'ai Pas Sommeil – translation: I Can't Sleep – to the list of failed revisions. Thanks to the slow paced paradigm applied by director Claire Denis, and the roundabout way the story steers its subject – in this case, the killer on the loose saga - this is one film that needs a gratuitous grim reaper to randomly appear and strike it down. It would make as much sense as the story this lifeless loser tells.
Daiga has moved to Paris from Lithuania. She looks up her great aunt, who she hopes will help her out. She also seeks out an old theater friend (and perhaps, former lover) who may have a job for her. But while Auntie does indeed find her a place to stay (with a friend who runs a hotel), the transplanted countryman lets her down. Stuck in the dead end world of housekeeper, Daiga passes her time exploring the rooms she cleans. One place in particular intrigues her the most. Camille, a gay black transvestite resides there, and his belongings and life appear strewn about the cramped quarters.
Camille is illusive and odd, engaged in a deep, destructive relationship with a thin, balding white man. And unknown to Daiga, he is very unhappy. Camille spends time with his musician brother Theo, bumming money and trying to sort out his scattered existence. His sibling has very few answers. Theo longs to leave Paris and live a very simple, natural life in Martinique. But he has a horrible shrew of a wife who constantly leaves him whenever the subject of moving comes up. Saddled like a single father with a precocious son, Theo finds himself caring for a child who is almost wise beyond his years, and a man who is falling further and further toward the fetal.
And all the while, a serial killer is stalking old ladies and strangling them in their apartments. How these three fit into the increasing number of crimes is part of the enigmatic and mysterious nature of living in the famed City of Light. In this aging metropolis, everyone is connected. They just don't know it.
I Can't Sleep is a crime drama without felonious intentions or a concept of tragedy. It's a thriller without suspense, and a character study about mere ciphers. Presenting a supposedly true story (it is "based" on real events – hmmm) in the most languid of fashions possible, and requiring the audience to piece together its indiscriminate and divergent narrative, it is neither capable nor comprehendible. It is a post-modern mystery soaked in so much self-indulgence that it barely remembers to provide the corpses that mark the murderous main storyline thread. While some can and will argue that this "unique" take on the serial killer ideal is to be championed for providing an original and non-romanticized approach to what is almost always a gruesome and grotesque subject, most film fans will be more than capable of catching some titular "Zs" after wrestling with this mess. It is a depressingly oblique muddle.
The main idea behind I Can't Sleep is that, one way or another, we are all interconnected to each other in the world, no matter how transitory the link, or elusive the individual realization. We may be living in the same building as a Russian émigré, a strange sexual sadist, or a strangler of old ladies. Because we no longer know our neighbors, choosing instead to live in the psychological suburbs of our shrinking global village, we tend to be isolated nihilists, lost in our own fatalistic world and pissed off that the rest of the universe doesn't understand it. In the three main characters of the narrative – Daiga, Camille and Theo - we see so much disconnect from reality that they barely exist within it. Instead, they appear to float, suddenly appearing in places and making their more or less vacant presence known. They are in some way supposed to suggest the aforementioned lack of human communication. We are supposed to see them as people who are related – by blood or locale or sentiment – but are totally unaware that they actually share anything at all.
It's a heady concept for what really is supposed to be an expressionistic cat and mouse whodunit. As the movie begins, we hear television and radio reports about a "Granny Killer" on the loose, and every once in a while, a paper will flash a headline or a set of ancillary characters will discuss the crimes. This is writer/director Claire Denis's way of showing a kind of communal obsession with the murders – how it pervades almost every aspect of daily Paris life. But instead of matching such a shadow with any kind of menace, or intonation of a film noir feel, Denis's movie is light and airy, crammed with brightly lit rooms and nonchalant ambience. Not a single main character acts threatened or scared. We never get a sense of imminent danger or trip hammer violence. The crimes, when we eventually see them committed, are effortless, struggle-free killings. The victims are so elderly that they put up absolutely no fight, and the individual responsible is cold and calculated, acting as blasé as if he was trying on a suit.
And maybe this is Denis's main theme – that murder is the ultimate impersonal expression. But since the director never prepares us for such a statement, since we never really get to know any of the individuals she's focusing so much attention on, the icy manner of the acts comes across equally frigid to us the audience. As a result, I Can't Sleep becomes a dull, dreary drag, nearly two hours of haughty ennui made to feel like five in the somber, far too understated cinematic style Denis designs. Hoping that by piling on the quiet quirks and illusory idiosyncrasies, she can somehow arrive at three-dimensional personalities, she misses the mark so often we grow weary of her efforts and attempts. Her trifurcated storyline – focusing on Daiga and her 'stranger in a strange land' life, Theo and his domestic issues, and Camille and his troubled relationships – never comes together, failing to comment or successfully connect to each other. Again, this may be some manner of missive the director is conceiving, a telling take on the cubicle, closed off modern world. But there is nothing in I Can't Sleep that even remotely illustrates such a concept. Just like the majority of the movie, any real meaning or message is left for guessing and speculation.
Along the way, I Can't Sleep commits other cinematic offenses, transgressions from which it never even tries to recuperate from. In essence, Denis has no tonal control. Her film is awash in varying degrees of absurdist comedy, composed character study, ethic color and flamboyant gay culture. Indeed, there is so much focus on Camille's homosexuality that, people upset with Buffalo Bill's crossdressing in Silence of the Lambs (granted, he was using actual female SKIN for his outfits) should find themselves in PC-flavored fits over this film. Denis dares to suggest that Camille's homicidal tendencies may come as a direct result of being an outsider in Paris' affluent bi-curious class system. His death dealing may just be some strange manner of same sex social climbing. He kills so he can then rob. He robs so he can then commiserate with his band of man-loving brothers. Add in the negative, destructive nature of his relationship with his boyfriend, and the constant cloud of doom he lives under and Camille is one supposedly sick cookie, thanks to his lifestyle "choice".
The problem is, of course, that there has to be other reasons for his crimes. He must have some deep seeded anger or hatred, a sense of racial or reality imbalance with the mostly Caucasian French that feeds his desire to destroy. But since I Can't Sleep is all surface, we never learn anything about Camille's true inner life. As a character, he has no core. So we can only judge from his outer being – and that is of an introverted, unhappy, possessive and violent gay man. Why more groups aren't ganging up on this travesty of slanderous stereotyping is amazing. I Can't Sleep paints such a juvenile portrait of slaughter, treating death like a means of cultural advancement, that it belittles everything it touches. And still, there are those who champion this charmless fiasco as something smart and salient, a telling take on our modern mindset about murder and mayhem. Perhaps then, they can also explain what a waif-like Lithuanian and a way beyond grave single father have to do with our effete strangler. And while they're at it, they can toss in a clarification on the references to Perestroika, the cartoon like Russian community, the lesbian overtones of Daiga's dance scene with the hotel manager, and the apparent cinematic obsession with crappy Slavic cars (Daiga's vehicle gets more screen time than the owner).
The cast is no help at all. Each actor gives the same performance – measured solemnity. Nothing can shake them from their homegrown righteousness: not the throb of a raving techno nightclub, a trip to the police station, an interrogation by detectives or dinner with a doddering aunt. In each and every case, out stars simply stare blankly and utter their banal lines with impassive seriousness. No one is having fun in I Can't Sleep, and even the characters imbued with false emotion, like Theo's insane spouse, who can't seem to say anything without sounding like a spoiled brat, render any and all possible campy pleasure away with their energy-less efforts. As for the leads, only Alex Descas as our henpecked hubby has any real personality potential. He seems to be hiding a buried truth or two behind his stern, static eyes. Yekaterina Golubeva is a vacuum of humorless hideousness as the droopy Daiga. She is so ephemeral, so open-faced and transitory that she barely registers on film. And as for Camille, lets just say that The Crying Game's Jaye Davidson has nothing to worry about from Richard Courcet. He is a featureless, poorly outlined retch that can't even lip sync with any manner of feeling (yep, we get the obligatory drag performance in the gay club scene – how original). Together with Denis's lack of style or focus, and the vague narrative nuances she uses to attempt to tell this tale, we get a film that fails utterly and totally.
It tells us nothing new or interesting about the mind of a killer, offers very little of value for anyone interested in the shrinking European/ Asian communities and is about as knowledgeable on issues of family and parenthood as a deadbeat dad. If you sit and listen closely, you can almost hear the gears spinning inside the director's head, creating wildly unrealistic visions of how unbelievably successful her take on the twisted tenets of mass murders will be. As she holds on scenes for far too long, you can hear the motor turn over and start to purr. As she trains her camera on meaningless glances or random, unimportant images, you sense the downshift and the settling into overdrive. During the musical numbers, you can feel her stagnant self-satisfaction as she lets her arrogance engine max out at full RPM, knowing inside himself that no one expects such interludes in a psycho killer story.
And Denis does push this lunatic locomotive so hard for so long, that it's no surprise when, at about the one hour point, she eventually throws a rod. At that moment, you realize two very troubling things: First, everything you watched up to that point was a waste of time, and – second - the movie never intends to make it up to you. Leaving us stranded and lost in the middle of his own veiled version of the crime thriller, Claire Denis and I Can't Sleep more or less abandon us. Too bad we didn't know it had no intention of ever following through on its peculiar promises in the first place. We could have avoided going on this ridiculous ride all together.
Presented by Wellspring in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image, I Can't Sleep looks washed out and faded. Denis has obviously never heard of the close-up, as she uses it so sparingly here that the entire film feels framed in a medium shot. As a result, there is very little definition in the picture, few details to grab one's attention or artistic temperament. The colors are pale and passionless, and nothing feels vibrant or alive. This could be part of Denis's purposeful aesthetic, a direct reflection of death's transience in her watery compositions. But it doesn't make for interesting visuals, and the DVD transfer captures this insipidness in an equally mundane manner.
There are two different aural offerings here, but neither presents anything immersive or channel challenging. Both the Dolby Digital Stereo and the 5.1 are flat, featureless and lacking any spatial or ambient flavor. Conversations are clear, and the English subtitles do a decent job of translating the talk. But if Denis hoped to build tension or tone with the wimpy electronica soundtrack, or some type of atmospheric attributes, the sonic situations fail her miserably. Otherwise, this is just a pedestrian presentation of sound.
Thankfully, we are not forced to sit through any more I Can't Sleep excuses, as the only DVD bonus material is of the bare bones, basic variety. There are trailers, a gallery, a filmography and some weblinks. While none provide any insight into the movie's making or origins, they also don't require that any attention be paid to them. Too bad the film isn't as easily avoidable.
When someone tries something new, it is usually hard to fault them. They deserve points for effort, and even if the outcome is something horrible, the stench of failure surely fades with time. And perhaps another generation, filled with its own preconceptions and propensities will view this film with different eyes and see a glaring gemstone where a fetid turd once lay. I Can't Sleep could indeed meet that future fate, speaking to an audience willing to lose itself in a slow, suggestive story of criminality and connections. But anyone willing to dive into the dreck director Clair Denis is spewing now deserves all the irritation they receive. Neither as accomplished as it claims or effective as it imagines, this 'serial killer character study as ill-conceived slumberfest' is a reminder that not every retrofitting ends up turning out right...or even watchable. Sometimes, the maxims and precepts are present for a reason. While they may be tired and trite, they also have an immediacy and an effect that cannot be argued with. The reason they're overused is because they WORK. Nothing about I Can't Sleep does, however. It's a case of reinvention that should never have left the assembly line. Such a cinematic lemon will only sour people on inventive, ingenious films for decades to come.
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