I Can’t Sleep (1994)

If Chocolat is Denis challenging the notion that the audience can form a cohesive view of a character in two hours, then I Can’t Sleep holds that people can’t even do that with those they know the best. Secret double lives, hidden desires and ambiguous pasts cloud any perception of who these characters truly are from both the audience and the characters that surround them. 

The opening follows Daiga (Katerina Golubeva), a Lithuania emigrant, who tries to find a place to settle down in Paris. As she visits her aunt and later begins work in an apartment complex, there’s a constant haze around who this woman is. As she smokes a cigarette and stands in front of the apartment complex, a man asks her if she’s the doorman, in gest, but she doesn’t reply, never giving up any information about herself.

It’s something also indicative of Théo (Alex Descas), who’s trying to raise his son by himself while pursuing a relationship which constantly is frustrated by his unwillingness to communicate and inability to make much sense. His brother, Camille (Richard Courcet), drops in every now and again to take up residence, but goes on to live his own mysterious life by night.

Therefore, the only way any knowledge is gained by these characters is simply through soaking in their existence, slowly and gradually. There are pieces here and there, but the film never bothers to tie them together, to note what is important and what is incidental. The problem is that for some characters, it doesn’t come together. Then again, that might be the point.

Théo is the character that has the strongest impression overall. His general distance and softer way make the natural glimpse into his life feel more like part of who he is as a person. The same cannot be said for Daiga. By the end of the film, she seems a woman who is simply there, no past, no future and little sense of being fully aware of the present.

The difficulty lies in understanding whether or not this is deliberate. Is creating someone who has seemingly no connection is a conscious act, a way to convey the impression of what might be a person? Or is it the film’s inability to provide any insight into her character? The scenes with her seem distant and cold in comparison to the very intimate and personal insights with Dagia and Camille.

Camille exists in the best space, the strong middle-ground where insight and ambiguity mingle into a menagerie of mystique and warmth. Denis never explains this character, never tries to understand his psychology or rationalize his behaviors. He’s simply there for the audience to watch and make of what they will.

But what makes I Can’t Sleep such a standout and memorable film is those surprising moments of revelation where the perception of characters shift and change into something unexpected. Sadly, Dagia never gets that moment, leaving her with the weakest third of the film. For Théo and Camille it’s a reminder that perceptions of people can drastically change in the most shocking moments of truth.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing