Monday, June 7, 2010

I Can't Sleep. (1994) Claire Denis

Kingdoms are always colliding in the films of Claire Denis. Perhaps the boundaries were first pushed in her 1988 debut, Chocolat, where they were first tested inside a country's borders. Though later films like L'intrus were more global in their scope, migration and immigration have always been steadfast in the common-ground world she depicts. I Can't Sleep is early in her oeuvre, and has all the bumps you'd expect from an upcoming director's work. But it's the textbook example you'd expect to find on the road to her finding the right voice.

Much of the reader-response criticism in reaction to the film have not treated it kindly over the years. Part of the problem in the misinterpretation of I Can't Sleep is in attempting to come to terms with it as a murder mystery. Murder does have a role here; daily reports in Parisian papers are filled with warnings about a serial killer stalking lonely, elderly women. But the killings aren't the central theme. They're only a facet in an advancing plot.

It's probably easier to understand this while looking back on all of Denis's work than it was at the time of the film's release, but in retrospect her ideas better emerge. There is a common thread of globalization that weaves through much of her work.  Films like Chocolat and Beau travail, Nénette et Boni and 35 rhums --and especially L'intrus, the one I flounder with but love in hindsight with every new Denis I see -- are similar in their study of Parisians, whether at home settling into city housing, or abroad, migrating to Africa or around the globe. They're a fragile emerging group grappling with the similarities and differences in all of us, in a tough to understand 21st Century melting pot.

So watching I Can't Sleep now is like seeing a picture of a high school senior, but someone you know as an adult with a large house and kids. Denis is concerned with the globe and how we interact on the face of it; she voices that concern more maturely these days, but the voice is still the same as in her earlier, blossoming works.

America isn't alone or unique in dealing with the perils or pleasures of global immigration. Denis's Paris is at the forefront of a diverse New Europe, one with roots in the traditional countries but as mixed as any American city. Everywhere you go in Paris you're welcomed with Lithuanian, African, Russian and American accents. Travelers and immigrants, legal and illegal are depicted in the film the same way they're integrated into a society still coming to terms with how to fit them in. Cops and African-French and homosexuals and kin from the Eastern block -- Lithuanians and American travelers, car thieves, moms, dads, children and pets -- they're all in Denis's Paris. Some with I.D. cards, and some not.

That we get to see and study the group as a whole in a small spare film about a serial killer suggests there's more at work here than a simple murder mystery. Rather, we focus less on plot and more on the people. The killer could be any one of us, but then again so could the lover or helper. We're never alone as we struggle the streets together, collectively individualistic, hoping for peace and perhaps unity for all.

The unity will come, but as we get used to new faces in old surroundings, it's going to be a slow boil, taking years to fully process. But it comes in the way we play together. It comes in the way we love. The way we laugh and dance* together -- the way we infuriate and frustrate one another -- together -- and when the infuriating and frustrating is all said and done done, finding peaceful ways to inhabit the earth.

*There is a dance scene in I Can't Sleep that is a direct familial foreshadowing of that most popular coming of age dance scene in 35 rhums. In the latter it was between a father, a daughter, and her soon-to-be lover. Here it is a mother and two sons continually cutting into each other's dance, almost begging their mom for attention. She invests her time and love in them both. It can be seen as another wonderful metaphor regarding the continuing process of globalization.

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