I Can't Sleep (J'ai pas sommeil,1994): Network Lives and Non-Sensationalism

for Yekaterina Golubeva (1966 - 2011)

Yekaterina Golubeva as Daiga Bartas

Adrian here:

Human elements for filmakers are hard to come-by, especially for those who are directing an ensemble cast. One of their major problems is controlling the energies and intensities of their characters such that each energy complements the energies of other characters. Claire Denis has achieved a full-control of her characters in J'ai Pas Sommeil. Working with more than thirteen characters, each well-characterized, Denis creates a network of interconnectedness of lives hidden and lives observed.

Network Lives of Outsiders

To start with, the film is about "outsiders". Daiga Bartas, played by the beautiful Yekaterina Golubeva, opens the story and she is the first 'outsider' character in then film. She plays a Lithuanian woman who comes to Paris to work as an actress in a play. In the opening of the film, we hear a news tidbit about a murder story of granny killer on the loose. This information is highly important for the succeeding events of the story, an information that will play central to the whole narrative. We witness, after Daiga's entrance in the film, a cut-to segment inside a residence of a French-African family somewhere in residential France, where we see two brothers, Camille and Theo, separated by a wall.
This first juxtaposition of two unrelated sections in the film, two sets of 'story worlds' reinforces the idea that they are somewhat related, connected somewhere in space. We intuitively organize, in our thoughts, an expectation that Daiga's story world and Camille and Theo's story world will collide in the end. There is also an abrupt change in colors, from the dark, navy blue colors of Daiga to the richly colored motif of Theo and Camille, as shown above, a method which shows contrast to the two worlds.

Though, in the beginning sequence of the film, there is a cut-to insert of what appears to as a gang where we have a first glimpse of Camille. Denis puts this to invite viewers to expect that there will be an aspect of a gang or a groupie in the film. Denis puts off this groupie element by off-setting the emphasis. She instead focuses on the dynamics of homosexual couple, Camille and Vincent.

Continuing our look on the interactions and interconnectedness of the characters outsiders, we apparently established that three major characters on the film: Daiga, our beautiful actress, Camille, who is introduced to us as a transvestite gang member, and Theo, a father of Harry and a husband to Mona who is apparently leaving Paris for a simpler life at Martinique. If there is one description that fits all three, they can be outwardly tagged as 'outsiders' of Paris.

Daiga, being a Lithuanian foreigner, has a struggle on speaking and understanding correct French, a thing her grand mother understood. After being shut-off by the theater director for an actress role, we observe Daiga's sudden withdrawal from people of her own age. But don't get me wrong, she did not withdraw herself socially, but more off she loves being alone observing the things around. This curious nature of Daiga becomes an important tool in resolving the story's opening conflict. She was the one who discovered that Camille, was indeed the granny killer after discovering a sketch at the police station.

She appears to be the most elusive of all character. We see through her eyes, and she observes mostly, always looking at 'unnoticeable' glimpses of the characters that helps us is piecing the mystery behind the film. She becomes the outsider-observer. Shown below are a couple of shots taken from Daiga's perspective:

Daiga's feminine point-of-view

As we can observe, Daiga's gaze revealed numerous plot information about the central conflict: the granny killer, bridging or connecting Camille's world and hers. Daiga's gaze is feminine. In fact, it is the most powerful gaze in the film because it resolves the overall conflict. We can somehow say that this gaze belongs to Denis herself as a filmmaker and as a woman. One can look at it also as an empowering gaze for women characters since it is deemed to be the most powerful.

Camille's world on the other hand are affirmed by Daiga's discoveries. His identity is revealed subtly and in a matter-of-fact way. At one point, he danced solo to the tune of Jean-Louis Murat's Le Lein DeFait, which possibly one of the most unforgettable scenes in the film.

Camille, dancing to the tune of Le Lien Defait

His performance resonates throughout the film which act itself as a connecting tissue to Camille's unpredictable temperament. His erratic, violent relationship with Vincent, his adventures in clubs, his uncertain aggravations with his brother, and his occasional happy moments with family gatherings. Camille embodies the wandering, trangressive character that can either be a man or a woman, that dances in public without a shame, that orchestrates a murder spree without guilt. We are drawn to this confidence and plasticity of Camille's character because of his relentless transformations throughout the film. His contradictions, his oddity, his perplexity as human being is enforced to us subtly, and with these qualities we form him as a whole character.

Camille's world is the central piece of the story which affects the whole of Daiga's world and France itself. Camille is an outsider in a sense that he is himself a homosexual, an outsider of the law, an outsider of France's culture. However, we cannot see this in the film. The film's perspective only shows within the interconnectedness of Camille, Daiga and Theo. But it's been suggested, at one scene at the end of the film that indeed Camille is an outsider when his brother bluntly told the police that he is a stranger to him and also when Camille's mother denounced him for being Satan as shown by below:

Camille was shut off as an outsider by his brother and mother.

Theo, the brother of Camille, seems to be detached from the whole picture. It seems that what connects Daiga and Theo is Camille. In the story, Daiga and Theo never met, while Camille and Daiga always criss-cross each others path. This might suggest that Theo is indeed the most isolated character of the three. Theo is struggling over his life in Paris. He plays the violin at a local club and do some carpentry work 'in the black market' to earn some money, but it appears that he is jobless and isolated by his life in Paris. He wanted to get out and return to Martinique bringing his whole family: a son named Harry and his wife names Mona. During the course of the story, we can sense the struggle of Theo in fulfilling this 'dream' of going back home, where, as he describes, life is simpler. His wife disagrees with the plan and so as his mother-in-law.

He also struggles in taking care of his brother, Camille, who always wanders off. He seems lonely on handling these affairs, but as the story goes, we can never tell if he manage to escape the modernity of Paris as he exits the frame in the last sequence.

Theo plays the violin to the tune of Racines by Kali

But like Camille, he has a solo performance over music, and not just a solo performance but a performance in the climax of the film. The elusiveness of Theo character offsets him from the two mainly because Theo role is to represent the French-African descent in France whose issues, aside from familial, is that he cannot simply get a job. This subtle critique of Denis is perplexing at all levels. And that his solo performance at the bar with his violin illustrates his loneliness as the marginalized one, incapable of establishing a worthy livelihood in Paris.

A Non-Sensational Serial Killer Film

As we see, Denis' construction of her story world is far complex than any common filmmaker working in France or anywhere in the world. Her brilliant arrangement of plot showed us the relations, either direct or indirect, of the networked lives in her film.

Humanist eye of Denis

Another notable approach that Denis used is her non-sensational plotting of a murder spree. We can recall perhaps that Camille has some affinities to Buffalo Bill of Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991) because they both are transvestite serial killers. What Denis achieves here is a softened, more human serial killer: an approach most thriller directors do not dwell much into. We see above the sensibilities Denis gives to Camille as an emotionally sensitive, highly complex being as opposed to many serial killers who are depicted as cold-blooded and ruthless criminals. We observe the subtle masking of Camille as perplex, diffuse and uncanny. His secret life is revealed as if unfolding slowly and we only get hints and indirect information.

To my mind, Denis finds the 'NYPD crime plot' too boisterous and too unforgiving of the characters. We understand Camille's humanity, I myself forgive him. Denis introduction of other characters have expanded the context of the film. We are no longer watching a film about a serial killer, we are instead watching a film about minorities in France.

Appropriately, Denis well-tuned soft lighting have affected the mood of the film as if the light has softened the controversy of the material itself. What seems to be the most elusive shot in the film that illustrate this non-sensational treatment is the climax, which turned out to be anti-climactic. See the pictures below.

Call it a musical climax, but for a serial killer film, this introduction of music at the most crucial moment of the film takes the fun away. But Denis has other reasons to do this. From the scene above, Theo performs his solo moment with a violin and caught of what would be the last glimpse of his brother in the film. Camille exits the bar. Kali's music continuously plays on while Camille contemplates the gaze of his brother. Opposite to him is a police car following him, but Kali's music continuously play. At this point, Denis approaches the gates of art cinema where ambiguity and uncharacteristic plots are of high importance.

We do not know what Camille is thinking, but when he was approached by the police, he followed instructions without restraint.


In the last part of J'ai Pas Sommeil, we see Daiga running away. It is her triumph, after all. and also the triumph of the female gaze. Like Daiga, Denis was triumphant enough to have achieved a masterpiece herself. With her subtle and non-sensational approach in filmmaking, it showed us a strikingly human portrait of a serial killer and the people around him. Denis is one of the rare filmmakers who can soften a hard pulp, like Ozu in many ways.