director Claire Denis
Claire Denis’s 1994 film I Can’t Sleep is loosely based on the notorious crime spree in France by Thierry Paulin and Jean-Thierry Mathurin, known collectively as “The Beast of Montmartre” or “The Old Lady Killer(s)”. Their crime spree ran from 1984-1987, and Thierry Paulin died of AIDS before he was even tried for the crimes.
Part of this dark tale is that Paulin was gay and performed in drag in Paris, part of a gay scene of the time. He was born in Martinique, and both Paulin and Mathurin were of African descent or mixed race. It’s hard to know entirely the significance of their crimes or the impact of their race or sexual orientation had when they were captured. Being the 1980’s, one can easily imagine that these were excellent fodder for shock and tabloid reporting.
It also is probably a key to Denis’s interest in the story. A white French woman, she was born in France by raised in different parts of colonial French Africa and her films are often interested in both French Africans and gay culture, both with a lens of understanding and investigation, not via exploitation. I have only seen a handful of her films, so I’m really not able to speak more broadly than this generality.
I Can’t Sleep is not literally or isolated to the story of the true crimes, but also on the story of a Lithuanian immigrant, a young beautiful woman, trying to make it in Paris with the help of distant relatives and old acquaintances. She is almost a cipher of sorts, until she finally begins to open and exhibit certain emotions. Another focus of the film is the brother of the main killer, a hard-working man with a beautiful mixed race son, with whom he wants to return to Martinique, against the wishes of his ex.
It’s a complex film. Quite interesting. One thing that struck me is that the film itself now is 20 years old, of how much has changed in those 20 years in some ways. I felt like I would like to know more about the real life events that inspired the film and what the cultural impact had been. And I also wish to see more of the films of Claire Denis to have better context for everything.
Such is life, I suppose.