Only (Dis)Connect; and Never Relaxez-Vous; or, ‘I Can’t Sleep’
by Robin Wood
Confessions of an Incompetent Film Critic
For people of my generation, who grew up in the 1940s/50s on an exclusive diet of classical Hollywood cinema (with the occasional British movie), the European ‘arthouse’ cinema always presented problems which linger on even today, a simple basic one being that of following the plot. This is not because the plot is necessarily complex or obscure, but, frequently, because of the way in which the characters are introduced and the action presented. When I grew up there was remarkably little serious criticism available (not much beyond the weekly reviews), and film studies courses in schools or universities were not even thought of. I was seventeen when I saw my first foreign language film (Torment/Frenzy [Hets, 1944], by Alf Sjöberg, from an early but already characteristic screenplay by Ingmar Bergman). I knew from the reviews that it would carry me far beyond anything I had seen previously, both in style and subject-matter, and my hand was trembling when I bought my ticket. I believe I had great difficulty following it (my first subtitles, not to mention extreme psychological disturbance). Fifty-five years later I still have the same problem when confronted with the films of Claire Denis (or Michael Haneke, or Hou Hsiao-Hsien…). The habits acquired during one’s formative years are never quite cast off; when I showed I Can’t Sleep to a graduate film group last year, my students corrected me over a number of details and pointed out many things I hadn’t noticed, although this was their first viewing of the film and I had already watched it three times. A classical Hollywood film – however intelligent and complex – is dependent on its surface level upon ‘popular’ appeal and its action must be fully comprehensible to a general audience at one viewing, covering all levels of educatedness from the illiterate to the university professor. (The same was of course true of the Elizabethan theatre – see, for example, the conventions of the soliloquy and the aside, wherein a character explains his/her motivation, reactions or thoughts to the audience). One of the cardinal rules was that every plot point must be doubly articulated, in both the action and the dialogue; another was the use of the cut to close-up that tells us ‘This character is important’; yet another, the presence of instantly recognizable stars or character actors. All of these Denis systematically denies us. It is a part of her great distinction that her films (and especially I Can’t Sleep, arguably her masterpiece to date) demand intense and continuous mental activity from the spectator: we are not to miss a single detail or to pass over a gesture or facial expression, even if it is shown in long shot within an ensemble, with no ‘helpful’ underlining and no ‘spelling out’ in dialogue.
It is the particular distinction of Denis’ cinema that sets it apart from – almost, indeed, in opposition to – the work of many of our most celebrated ‘arthouse’ directors: Bergman, for example, or Fellini or Antonioni. Their films are rooted in autobiography – not necessarily in any literal sense, but in terms of personal introspection – whereas Denis left autobiography behind with Chocolat, and even that film is notable for its poise and critical distance, its objectivity. Where Bergman or Fellini seems to be saying to us ‘Come with me and I’ll tell you my secrets, share my experiences – how I feel about things, my thoughts about existence’, Denis issues a very different invitation to the spectator: ‘Come with me and we’ll play a game, albeit a serious one. Let’s see how much you can notice in what I decide to show you, how you interpret what you see and hear, what connections you can make, how much can be explained and how much remains mysterious and uncertain, as so much in our lives remains unclear. I’ll allow you a certain leeway of interpretation, because I don’t always understand everything myself, not even my own creations, though I’ll be as precise as possible…’ A few examples from the film’s first ten minutes will illustrate various aspects of this.
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