Kinoeye: New perspectives on European film

Vol 3
 Issue 7 
9 June
2003

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Claire Denis' J'ai pas sommeil (I Can't Sleep, 1994) FRANCE
Decoding unreadable spaces
Claire Denis' J'ai pas sommeil
(I Can't Sleep, 1994)

As Corinne Oster explains, Denis' J'ai pas sommeil employs strategies of "narrative, spatial and psychological dislocation" to address issues of displacement and exclusion in a society where the marginalisation of the Other remains a key concern for the director.


Claire Denis has often directed films that deal with the marginalisation of the Other, which is mostly evident in her depiction of men of colour and of foreigners living in France in the margins of mainstream society. A white Frenchwoman who grew up in Cameroon, Denis has always been keenly aware of social and institutionalised inequality, and actually refers to Chocolat (1989), S'en fout la mort (No Fear No Die, 1990) and J'ai pas sommeil (I Can't Sleep, 1993) as her "trilogy about colonialism and its aftermath."[1] In this respect, she occupies a specific space within recent French cinema, along with an increasing group of female directors who have consciously shifted the focus of their films to racial, sexual or social groups and minorities which often have little voice or representation in the mainstream media.[2]

Many of Denis' films set in France feature black African immigrants—who are often French citizens—living in precarious situations outside the mainstream. In J'ai pas sommeil, Denis chooses to portray West-Indian and Eastern-European immigrant communities in Paris through the itineraries of Camille (Richard Courcet), a black, gay serial killer, and Daïga (Yekaterina Golubeva), a young Lithuanian woman seeking a new life in France.

In what follows, I will offer an overview of some of the strategies of narrative, spatial and psychological dislocation used by Denis in J'ai pas sommeil to address the topics of displacement and exclusion. Indeed, the fictional representations of liminal spaces created by the director in this film not only highlight the separation of two worlds, but also reveal the strength of self-contained universes whose invisibility allows for a relatively independent existence. Ultimately, Denis presents the image of a French society in mutation, one that is as different from its mainstream counterpart as it is inextricably attached to it.

White and black invisibility

The issue of colonialism is crucial if one is to understand the marginal position of J'ai pas sommeil in French cinema. Indeed, just as Denis's previous film, S'en fout la mort, was termed "a portrait of exploitation" of illegal immigrants,[3] J'ai pas sommeil reveals the precarious situation of both men of colour and white immigrants in French society. More importantly, however, it addresses the subject of anonymity and its close link to marginality. J'ai pas sommeil shows that the advantages usually conferred upon what Richard Dyer has termed "white invisibility"[4] can be reversed to the advantage of the borderland, whose relative invisibility is as interesting to apply to the representation of black protagonists as the idea of invisibility in this context has been associated with whiteness.

Indeed, Dyer points out that "[w]hiteness has secured universal consent to its hegemony as the 'norm' by masking its coercive force with the invisibility that marks off the Other as…all too visible— 'coloured'."[5] In J'ai pas sommeil, however, white invisibility is paralleled with a representation of the "coloured" invisibility of a borderland that, because it is detached from the norms established by mainstream society, escapes traditional means of detection, and is no longer marked as visible.

The film's treatment of this topic thus obeys a specific structure, shifting conventional representations towards a more personal, de-centred terrain in which the formal elements (including self-reflexivity and mise-en-abyme) also serve to differentiate the borderland even further from mainstream society, and almost removes it from possible recognition, something which audiences may find unsettling. This reversal can be observed on a larger scale on three levels: narrative, spatial (and temporal) and social (and psychological).

Narrative dislocation

Even though the narrative structure of J'ai pas sommeil is chronologically linear, it is characterised by important fragmentation at a number of different levels, which contributes to reinforcing the pattern of invisibility present in the film. The narration hovers around three "main" characters, Daïga, Camille and Théo (Alex Descas), who, according to Thierry Jousse, "represent the crossroads of fiction: their common point is that they enjoy a very singularised relationship with society, a relationship made of indifference and defiance in a period when the social weighs so much."[6]

J'ai pas sommeil's minimal plot, filmed through the aimless wanderings of the protagonists, seems to be characterised by an absence of narrative purpose and formal closure, and thus finds its strength, instead, in the formal depiction of a peripheral world. This narrative decision on the part of Claire Denis serves as a device of psychological dislocation both for the viewer, not used to narratives without a strong sense of closure, and for the characters, who themselves seem to be driven by no specific aim: excluded from traditional forms of storytelling, they are also people without a story, and without a history. They live and interact according to a driving force which is never explicitly articulated.

The filmmaker's decision not to rely on dialogue, but rather on other modes of communication, is yet another narrative pattern of dislocation used to convey situations of exclusion. Yet the silencing of the characters' voices gives them a different kind of voice which Denis conveys through a careful filming of their surroundings. The active participation of the viewer (who is himself silent) is then used to identify with people who have not been given an authoritative voice and/or the opportunity to firmly establish their identity in the border space that they occupy. Moreover, dialogue between characters is all the more non-existent since many of them do not even share the same language: Daïga only speaks Russian, and Camille and his family often speak in Créole to one another.

However, Daïga's inability to speak French is not a problem preventing her from understanding what is going on around her; rather, it gives her the opportunity to distance herself from it. In the end, as she leaves Paris, she will have made the best of her remote observations without having to involve herself in the lives of the other protagonists. This remoteness has, in a way, made her invisible to them, and proves a definite strength in the film's last sequence, as she exits Paris unnoticed with Camille's money.

Spatial dislocation

J'ai pas sommeil can be considered an urban film. One might argue, in fact, that it could not take place in the countryside, that it is essentially linked to the city and its social architecture. While the countryside traditionally offers an image of unity and wholeness, the city, with its different populations and social classes, gives an impression of diversity, but also of fragmentation. Even though the "patchwork" views of Paris's 18th district eventually converge towards an impression of unity or homogeneity, as Jousse points out in his Cahiers du cinéma article, "the fiction is built around foyers, de-centered attraction poles, rather than around a unique center."[7] This decentralisation, characteristic of the urban landscape, also applies to the film's protagonists at the level of belonging, as they find themselves within and between cultures; and their constant movement around the city attests to the dynamic and ever-shifting quality of the society in which they live.

As Michel de Certeau judiciously points out in his influential essay, "Walking in the city," we should note that representations of the city are in fact mostly connected with the imaginary. De Certeau argues that the city as a whole does not exist as a homogeneous, or readable, representation, and that its citizens thus escape all means of detection or identification:

The ordinary practitioners of the city live "down below," below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk— an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban "text" they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other's arms. The paths that correspond in this intertwining, unrecognized poems in which each body is an element signed by many others, elude legibility. It is as though the practices organizing a bustling city were characterized by their blindness. The networks of these moving, intersecting writings compose a manifold story that has neither author nor spectator, shaped out of fragments of trajectories and alterations of spaces: in relation to representations, it remains daily and indefinitely other.[8]

This ungraspable "other" inhabitant of the city is very precisely the subject of J'ai pas sommeil. Better than any other filmmaker, Denis has succeeded here in capturing the essence of the illegible citizen.

Symptomatically, J'ai pas sommeil opens with movement: after a 30 second shot of two policemen laughing in a helicopter over the Paris "périphérique," Denis' camera focuses on Daïga's small Lithuanian car driving on the Parisian highway towards the city, while she is listening to a radio programme whose language she does not understand.[9] The film closes on a similar scene: Daïga is driving away from Paris in her car, carrying with her the money she stole from Camille, the killer. The framing of J'ai pas sommeil around the idea of movement, as the title of the film suggests, along with the constant ambulation of the protagonists around the city, further emphasises the absence of sedentary marks in the lives of the characters, and prevents the audience from relying on known structures that would allow them to read the place they are watching. Instead, it forces them to rely on deconstructed locations and binary oppositions producing shifting, unreadable spatial representations.

Accordingly, it is also interesting to note the absence of traditional cultural and historical icons in the diegesis, which are replaced with signs belonging to the "alternate," anonymous society depicted therein. Unless the viewer is familiar with the cosmopolitan 18th district of Paris, there are few recognisable places in the film, and there are no establishing extreme long shots which could give a visual background for most of the scenes. Such signifiers are replaced by highways, empty streets and stairways, hotel doors and rooms, roofs, thereby displacing traditional living spaces into a more alternative setting; and by medium shots, which never allow viewers to situate themselves or the characters precisely in space, thus accentuating feelings of dislocation.

Finally, de-localisation also takes place at the level of time. According to Jousse, "[J'ai pas sommeil] unceasingly hovers between the end of the afternoon, the full night or dawn."[10] Paris is thus often seen at dawn or dusk, liminal times of transition. Additionally, we should note that days in the film are often associated with unpleasant situations: the murders perpetrated by Camille occur by day; Théo's "travail au noir" takes place during the day; Daïga meets irritable bartenders and unpleasant policemen, and is rebuffed by a former lover, in the daytime. By way of contrast, Camille's drag performance in the bar, Théo's concert with his band and Daïga's bonding with her lodger all take place at night, a space often heavily populated and mostly associated with pleasure.

Night is also an intimate space, but one which does not belong to conventional modes of living. As the title of the film suggests, the characters of J'ai pas sommeil do not fit or respect the norms of established sleeping time. And while the film situates them as outsiders from the very first image, J'ai pas sommeil's "borderland" very much presents itself as a social scene, even though it is often one which is not traditionally accepted, or which is deemed invisible by societal standards. This social scene appears very much alive and independent from a mainstream society which we will never really see, and which in turn does not (or refuses to) see it. Regardless, Denis' characters are always in motion, and find themselves most comfortable when driving in their cars or sleeping on the roof of a building. The way in which they ultimately control their movements also signifies to some extent the level of independence or authority which they possess over their own lives (the character of Daïga mostly illustrates this through her determination and via the outcome of the film).

Psychological dislocation

The de-centred poles analysed above are also racially determined. As mentioned earlier, J'ai pas sommeil can be read as a depiction of France and its foreigners in the post-colonial era, and we should note that the main female character of the film, Daïga, who comes from Lithuania, offers a picture of more uncompromised freedom (or invisibility) than the other foreigners depicted.

Unlike Daïga, a "real" foreigner, the men of colour in J'ai pas sommeil are all French citizens from the West Indies, a former French colony, yet they encounter more difficulties in their integration into French society than the East-European characters. This has important implications in terms of the racial power dynamics enacted in the film, and how these power dynamics always reposition the "other" at the margins of French society. Martinique-born black psychiatrist and anticolonialist intellectual Frantz Fanon has noted in The Wretched of the Earth that the situation of the colonised people is very specific: unlike (for example) the French during German occupation, "a colonized people is not only a dominated people. Under German occupation, the French had remained men."[11] The colonised are thought of as different, and more specifically inferior, due to the specific circumstances of colonisation in which and by which they have been defined.

The resulting, well-known pattern identified by Fanon, according to which "between oppressor and oppressed, everything must be resolved through the use of force/violence,"[12] can be observed in J'ai pas sommeil in the scene between Théo and a young woman who is trying to underpay him for his carpentry work. In the same way, the relation between Théo and his white, French wife is characterised by constant antagonism. Communication between margin and centre in post-colonial France is thus still shown as difficult, or even impossible, today. More importantly, communication between members of Théo's family within these margins has equally been suppressed. Théo knows nothing of his brother's criminal activities, and when a black policeman tells him that he should have noticed something, Théo simply replies: "My brother, it's like you. I don't know him," thus highlighting the absence of a community within their own people.

It is worth pointing out that, as Stuart Hall writes in New Ethnicities, "[y]ou can no longer conduct black politics through the strategy of a simple set of reversals, putting in place of the bad essential white subject, the new essentially good black subject."[13] Claire Denis reiterates her desire to go against politically correct stereotypes (an issue which had already aroused criticism following her portrayal of Jocelyn [Alex Descas] as a humiliated character in S'en fout la mort) with her depiction of two black brothers as antipathetic characters (one unfriendly, the other a killer) to produce yet another form of displacement.

Conclusion: A simplistic view overturned

J'ai pas sommeil therefore presents us with a different view of French society. It is not exactly a new space, as it is clear that the places revealed by Denis have been in existence for quite some time, but it is a space which is usually represented from a mainstream perspective as a very simplistic, highly visible, potentially dangerous one which official authorities have to set in order.

To counter this view, Denis offers us complex portrayals of equally complex borderlands where this visibility has been replaced by a kind of invisibility which offers its members an independence only allowed by such self-contained worlds. The best illustration of this is Denis' depiction of Camille, who can kill old ladies, be a good son and be "such a nice boy" at the same time. This depiction of the borderland also attests to a demythification of the colonial past in film narratives, exposing its nefarious consequences but also the complexity of not so separate worlds, in urban landscapes that are no longer familiar.

Corinne Oster

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Also of interest
About the author

Corinne Oster has recently completed her PhD dissertation on new representations of marginality in contemporary French women's cinema, in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


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Footnotes

1. Amy Taubin, "Under the Skin." Film Comment 36. 3 (May/June 2000): 28.return to text

2. I am thinking here of Laetitia Masson (En avoir (ou pas) [To Have (or not), 1995]) or Agnès Merlet (Le fils du requin [The Son of the Shark, 1993]), who shot their first films in the North of France, in depressed areas hurt by unemployment. There are women filming in rural areas, eg, Sandrine Veysset (Y aura t-il de la neige à Noël? [Will It Snow for Christmas?, 1996]), Patricia Mazuy (Peaux de vaches [Thick Skinned, 1998]) and Hélène Angel (Peau d'homme coeur de bête [Skin of Man, Heart of Beast, 1999]); as well as women filming racial, sexual or social minorities, eg, Marie Vermillard (Lila, Lili [1999]), Yolande Zauberman (Clubbed to death/Lola [1996]), Anne Fontaine (Les histoires d'amour finissent mal…en général [Love Affairs Usually End Badly, 1993]) and Yamina Benguigui (Mémoires d'immigrés [1998], Inch'Allah Dimanche [2001]).return to text

3. Chris Darke, "Desire is Violence." Sight and Sound 10.7 (July 2000): 16.return to text

4. Richard Dyer, "White." Quoted in Screen 29.4 (Autumn 1998): 2-10.return to text

5. Ibid: 6.return to text

6. Thierry Jousse, "Les insomniaques." Cahiers du cinéma 479/480 (May 1994): 20-23. French text: "Ces trois êtres sont le carrefour de la fiction, ils ont en commun d'entretenir un rapport très singularisé à la société, un rapport fait d'indifférence et de défi dans une période où le social pèse tellement" (20).return to text

7. Ibid. French text: "[l]a fiction est construite autour de foyers, de pôles d'aimantation décentrés, plutôt qu'autour d'un centre unique" (20).return to text

8. Michel De Certeau, "Walking in the city." In The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (London and New York: Routledge, 1993, 1999 [2nd edition]), 128.return to text

9. We should note here the mise-en-abyme (or reiteration) of the concept of dislocation.return to text

10. Ibid. French text: "le film navigue sans cesse entre la fin de l'après-midi, la nuit pleine ou le petit matin" (22).return to text

11. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove, 1968), 300.return to text

12. Ibid, 102.return to text

13. Stuart Hall, "New Ethnicities." In Black Film/British Cinema, ed Kobena Mercer (London: BFI Publishing, 1988). Quoted in Screen 29.4 (Autumn 1998), 2-10.return to text

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