As I admit to my sometime Reader colleague Andrea Gronvall in the conversation below, I find some of Claire Denis’s movies to be more difficult on the second viewing than on the first. It’s clear enough as to whom Denis’s characters are, what they’re doing, and even which themes Denis is addressing through their stories. Yet when I try to get deeper into the film—to understand why Denis has dramatized certain episodes or what motivates her characters at certain junctures—I discover enigmas I hadn’t even considered before. After The Intruder (2004), which plays in the Siskel Film Center’s Claire Denis retrospective at the end of the month, I’d nominate the films playing this week, I Can’t Sleep (1994) and Trouble Every Day (2001), as her most challenging. When both of these films were released, many critical responses focused on their lurid aspects. That’s understandable, as two of the characters in I Can’t Sleep are serial killers (and—spoiler alert—gay lovers, no less), and Trouble Every Day is a sexualized vampire story featuring the most gruesome violence in Denis’s filmography. Seen outside their initial controversy, though, these films seem to be about much more than sex and violence. In their random connections, density of incident, and free-floating dread, they seem to be about nothing less than life under late capitalism. Whatever they’re ultimately getting at, they look and feel like few other films made before or since—Andrea and I enjoyed the challenge of articulating what makes them so unique.
Ben Sachs: One reason it can be hard to suss out what’s going on in a Claire Denis movie is that she rarely lets us in on her characters’ motivations. Even in Trouble Every Day, which is one of the Denis films with the strongest connection to genre storytelling, it’s never quite clear what Vincent Gallo’s character is looking for in France. Yes, he wants to find the doctor played by Alex Descas, whose wife (Beatrice Dalle) has the same vampiric affliction that he has. But what he wants with them exactly is never stated.
Andrea Gronvall: I have a theory. I think Coré (Dalle) is the one who “turned” him, if we’re talking about this in terms of vampire lore. I like how this film never says they’re vampires—only that they’re suffering from a disease of the brain. One assumes that Leo (Descas) went to Guyana to help his wife by discovering some alternative therapy [for her condition].
In the flashback—you know, the scene Vincent Gallo remembers when he’s resting on his hotel bed—that female doctor asks Gallo, “You had an affair with her, didn’t you?” He says, “It wasn’t quite like that.” [laughs] That scene looks like it was shot on 16-millimeter. It’s incongruous with the rest of the film, so for it to be there, it has to have a purpose.
I found Trouble Every Day more bewildering on a second viewing than the first. The narrative seems basic when compared with Denis’s other films, yet I can’t put my finger on whatever mood it’s trying to convey.
The violence is disturbing, that’s for sure. But, not to be flip, there’s something almost comic about the details of those violent scenes. You know, Dalle’s character is a gal who likes to play with her food!
That image is the center of the film. The rest of the it seems to exist . . .
To get to that point, yeah.
And everything leading up to it is building on this particular mood that I can’t define. Before the movie explains how the different characters are connected, we sense they’re under the sway of the same spell. (I Can’t Sleep works this way too, presenting Yekaterina Golubeva’s Lithuanian immigrant and the brothers from Martinique played by Descas and Richard Courcet as being on parallel, but discrete, tracks.) Whatever it is, it’s creating this atmosphere of sexual temptation and dread. And it’s spreading out to the lives of peripheral characters, like the maid at the hotel where Gallo’s staying. She seems to be motivated by something, but I’m not sure what she contributes to the film apart from ending up as Gallo’s victim.
Dalle’s main victim—the one she mauls to death in that central scene—is very enigmatic. He and his friend are staking out her house, charting Leo’s comings and goings, and you could ascribe all sorts of motivations to him. Is he just a punk who wants to break in? Once he’s inside the house, he doesn’t look for anything of value—not that it looks like there’s much of value in there. He just makes his way to her.
There’s a sense that the victims in this movie are drawn to their victimization, returning to this intertwining of temptation and dread.
When Denis cuts to those shots of the back of the maid’s neck, I thought of all the shots of the back of Monica Vitti’s head in Michelangelo Antonioni’s films and of Carlotta Valdes’s chignon in Vertigo—scenes where the camera seems to be falling in love with a woman through the back of her neck. All the women that Gallo’s character notices in the film, they all seem to wear their hair up. His wife, though, has her hair cut so very short. And he loves her, but . . .
We never see them consummate their marriage.
Perhaps they have and something about it isn’t satisfactory for him. There are no scenes of them making love, but there are two scenes of him masturbating. I got the idea that he couldn’t achieve orgasm with another person unless there’s bloodletting.
Maybe before he can enter into a conventional marriage, he has to achieve closure with the woman who turned him.
Or just get medicine. We never know. Presumably, what Leo was trying to do was cure his wife. And Gallo’s character, who’s also a scientist, has figured this out by reading Leo’s work. That’s why he’s tracking him down . . . I think.
I found the visuals in Trouble Every Day quite affecting—and markedly different from those of I Can’t Sleep. The way [cinematographer] Agnes Godard uses handheld camera really reflects the jitteriness of the characters played by Dalle and Gallo. And I love those shots of the Seine and the hotel hallways—they reminded me of arteries. I don’t think that was necessarily the intent of the filmmakers, but that’s what I thought of. [laughs]
I get the feeling that Denis is always on the lookout for happy accidents like that—her filmmaking is so rooted in immediate sensation. I doubt that she plans out her films shot by shot, the way someone like Hitchcock did. There are always moments in her films that we seem to have come upon by chance.
Without selling her short as a filmmaker, filmmaking is a collaborative medium. I’m sure Godard influences Denis’s choice of images.
She’s shot the majority of the films.
So they work well together, meaning she understands what Denis wants. But it’s also her eye behind the camera. There are many other contributing factors.
I very much enjoyed I Can’t Sleep. You know how Robin Wood opens his essay discussing that [Dean Martin] song “Relax Ay Voo” that Denis uses near the beginning of the film? For me, it was like the film telling you, “Just sit back and watch what happens.”
There’s a great line in that essay, where Wood compares Denis to canonized art house directors like Bergman and Antonioni. He writes that the canonized guys seem to tell their viewers “Come with me, and I’ll tell you my secrets,” whereas Denis says, “Come with me, and we’ll play a game.”
There’s another point where Wood says that she’s not at all judgmental of her characters.
Do you agree with that?
With I Can’t Sleep, I would say so. You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Like Father, Like Son since it played at the Chicago International Film Festival. What I like about that film—and Kore-eda in general—is its humanist sensibility. Kore-eda once said something like, “I don’t know if I like being labeled a humanist, but if you mean by humanism, not giving up on humanity, then I can accept it.” And you feel that in Like Father, Like Son. It’s a moral film, but not a morally judgmental one. Kore-eda just follows this flawed protagonist as he comes to realize how much he’s causing the problems in his own life. And he frames this journey as one of the things that human beings are capable of doing.
I don’t think Denis judges her characters either, but I don’t know what you’d call her relationship to them. What are the characters in I Can’t Sleep suffering from? I disagree with the idea that it’s alienation. And they’re not necessarily sociopathic. The young killer seems like more of a hedonist than anything. Robin Wood entertained the suspicion that he has AIDS. He might, but I don’t know if that explains his motivation for killing all those old ladies.
I’ve never thought to call Denis’s perspective humanist.
No, we’re not looking at these people with love. But that round of supporting characters is so diverse and interesting . . .
The movie’s perspective sometimes strikes me as that of an extraterrestrial on its first trip to Paris. We look at several different lives, get a sense they’re somehow alike, yet the reasons as to why are beyond us. Humanism to me connotes a desire to better understand human beings.
I’m thinking of humanism as employed by Jean-Paul Sartre—a way of explaining Man’s place in the universe in the absence of God. That’s the title of one of Sartre’s lectures, “Existentialism Is a Humanism.” I don’t want to say that I Can’t Sleep is a grim film, but there’s a certain existential despair in it about the random machinations of the universe.
The overall feeling of randomness makes any parallels between the characters that much more tantalizing.
I like something Michael Koresky wrote about I Can’t Sleep for Reverse Shot: “Denis’s way of getting at her principals’ points of view is strenuous and complex (hardly vague and insubstantial as some claim), a constantly evolving negotiation of the individual and also how she or he is perceived by a society that doesn’t seem to require them.” I agree with Koresky that the movie isn’t about urban angst—Paris doesn’t seem as evil here as it does in Trouble Every Day. Everybody seems to function, more or less.
And everybody has their own particular routines. Perhaps that’s why these men are able to kill so many old women without getting caught. Everyone else has their own business to attend to, and they don’t notice the killers.
Plus there’s the anonymity of the city streets, the apartment buildings. There’s a scene where Alex Descas’s character, Théo, hears a woman crying in the apartment next door and he goes to investigate. He doesn’t know if her husband’s mistreating her or if she just isn’t well. That’s the only interaction between neighbors we see.
Yekaterina Golubeva’s character ends up befriending the owner of the building where she lives.
But she also works for her. That begins as a work relationship.
It’s difficult to map out the patterns in this film, let alone define them.
It’s great when you have to think so hard about a movie. I wouldn’t sit down to write a review of anything by Denis right away. I’d want to think about it for a few days.
When I watch any of Denis’s films for the first time, I think, “This is how it must have felt to be baffled by Antonioni in the 1960s.” Because we’ve caught up with Antonioni’s worldview, yet certain Denis movies operate under a logic that still seems beyond the reach of most narrative movies. Robin Wood notes how I Can’t Sleep doesn’t invite identification with the characters in a traditional sense. To add to that, it doesn’t encourage detachment either, as in Antonioni films like L’Avventura or L’Eclisse.
We don’t get a lot of backstory. We learn why Golubeva’s character has arrived in Paris—she’s pursuing a connection she had with a French director she met in Lithuania, and she’s looking for acting work. But we don’t know which one is more important to her. And when the killer, Camille (Richard Courcet), tells the police at the end, “I’m an easygoing guy,” the movie doesn’t give us much reason to disagree with him. When he isn’t killing old ladies, he does seem like an easygoing guy. Out of curiosity, do you experience a negative emotional reaction to any of the characters in I Can’t Sleep?
No, I don’t. I find the sense of mystery so strong that I still haven’t decided how I feel about the characters.
That’s part of puzzle, right? Daiga, the character played by Golubeva, explodes into a rage at a pivotal point in the film, when she insults the man who’s thinking of buying her car and then crashes into the car of that director when she notices him driving. It’s surprising because she seems so disaffected before that. My take on her is that she came to Paris with one thing in mind, and when that doesn’t work out she watches the world around her—in part because she doesn’t speak much French, in part because this is what any good actress does.
I hadn’t given much thought to her artistic background.
When I studied painting years ago, my instructor would say to look at your subject three times as much as you look at the canvas. And that’s what Daiga does, so to speak. It’s how she’s able to figure out where the killers have hidden the money they stole. Her discovery is partly the result of an accident—seeing the killers’ portraits at the police station when she’s taken in for insulting the officer—and that’s something that makes the screenplay so wonderful. What seems like an accident is actually a necessary plot point.
It’s not a major motif in the film, but I like how the two brothers, Théo and Camille, often seem like shadows of each other. Like, there’s one moment when Denis cuts from Camille walking down the street to Théo walking across his apartment—it’s as though one brother is completing the other’s action. Or the scene at their mother’s birthday party, where one brother dances with mom, then the other takes over. That’s a beautiful moment. And yet, near the end of the movie, Théo tells the police, “My brother’s like a stranger to me.” Why does he say that? Is it because he doesn’t want to talk to the cops or because he never really knew him? You never get the sense he had a problem with Camille being gay.
The movie doesn’t make any issue of homosexuality, which is one reason why Robin Wood loved it. In fact, there’s something you could call optimistic about the way many of the characters get along. I think of the building owner training all those old women in self-defense, also the lively communities of immigrants from Martinique and Lithuania. If it’s true that these characters aren’t needed by society, then they exist in a sort of democracy of uselessness. They’re united by that.
You’d feel safe walking the streets in this particular vision of Paris.
Unless you’re an old lady.
Right. [laughs] But they seem to meet their ends in their apartments. That looks like an awful lot of work, knocking off old ladies for such minimal returns. It’s not like Camille and his lover had a huge stash of money in their place. So, that raises questions. Why are they in such need of money? There is that scene of Camille buying drugs, so it’s possible that he has a drug habit.
I thought that scene depicted him buying AIDS medication on the black market. Those are pills he’s buying.
Certainly Vincent Gallo’s medicine bag in Trouble Every Day—the one his wife finally discovers—evokes AIDS treatments in the array of different pills. I can see how that film could be read as an AIDS allegory.
I think anxieties about the spread of HIV and AIDS pervade I Can’t Sleep as well, but in a more abstract way. In Trouble Every Day, the link between sex and death is one of the most concrete things in the movie.
At the beginning of this series, I wanted to consider whether Denis’s innovations as a filmmaker can be tied to her exercising a female perspective. As the retrospective goes on, though, I’m more inclined to say that her innovations are unique to her.
I know some people will get mad at me for this, but I think the sign of a really great filmmaker is that his or her gender doesn’t matter when you look at the films. I don’t see anything distinctly “feminine” about Claire Denis as a filmmaker. I mean, I know she’s a woman, and I’m glad that she’s as prominent as she is, because it’s difficult everywhere for women to get ahead in movies. But I think her main contribution to cinema as a woman is that her success opens doors for other women.
I wonder if discussions about filmmakers and gender are as relevant in our postfeminist era, particularly since the world has gotten tougher. As economies shrink, life is more and more a matter of every man for himself and every woman for herself. In my dealings with women in broadcast television, I found that the successful ones had internalized the cutthroat rules of the alpha-male business world very well. I don’t think that’s necessarily a victory, on the whole.
One thing I find refreshing about Denis’s work is that—while her position on colonialism is very clear—she’s not making adamantly feminist films. Because political cant does not age well. I think if a great filmmaker owes anything to the audience, it’s an effort to be as true to humanity as he or she can be. I think Claire Denis does that, which is why I don’t think of her as a “female filmmaker,” not in the way I think of, like, Nancy Meyers [What Women Want, It’s Complicated].
I didn’t think we’d go from Claire Denis to Nancy Meyers.
Yeah, what a double feature that would make. But, hey, I’m sure Nancy Meyers has helped a few people.