The first scene of I CAN’T SLEEP (New Yorker Films, unrated), a deceptively languid, unusually engrossing murder mystery (in French, with subtitles), ought to alert you that this is not your standard portrait of a serial killer: Cops in a helicopter laugh hysterically while flying over the streets of Paris. Each new wave of amusement provokes even wilder giggles. But what these men are laughing about we’ll never know. We’ve just been airlifted into the middle of a story that started before the lights went down, and it’s up to the viewer to figure out: Psycho killer, qu’est-ce que c’est?
Claire Denis, an independent-minded director who made her feature debut in 1988 with the very personal Chocolat, based Sleep on a real-life Parisian crime wave — the murders of more than 20 elderly women that ended, in 1987, with the arrest of a gay black man and his white boyfriend. In her movie adaptation (with elegant cinematography by Agnes God ard), the key killer is a bedroom-eyed drag-club habitue from Martinique called Camille (Richard Courcet). Occasionally Camille finishes up a long night (in fishnet stockings and black nail polish) with an early morning visit to the flat of his brother, Theo (Alex Descas), a mournful loner separated from his wife and raising his sweet little son while pining to return to his native Caribbean island.
Also drifting through the city is Daiga (Kat erina Golubeva), a beautiful young Lithuanian with minimal command of French, Michelle Pfeifferesque cheekbones, and a cool way of smoking cigarettes. Rootless and isolated by a language barrier (she doesn’t understand the news we hear on her car radio about a ”granny killer” on the loose), Daiga takes a job as a chambermaid in a dingy hotel — the same hotel where Camille and his lover share a room. Navigating her way through a bewildering new culture, she understands about as much of the big picture as we do when we see those cops in the chopper. To her — and to us — this world appears sinister, romantic, surreal, and matter-of-fact all at once.
When Theo’s boy can’t sleep, father takes son to the roof to gaze at the city spread below them. Meanwhile, on the ground, things happen: Old women take self-defense classes, young men put on makeup to gather in tunnel-like clubs, and some people get killed. I Can’t Sleep avoids the pitfalls of the story’s nightmare circumstances. In their place, Denis has created a beautifully shaped work that recognizes the dreamlike qualities of even the most awful moments in waking life. A-