Claire Denis's Flickering Spaces of Hospitality
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Claire Denis's Flickering Spaces of Hospitality

There is a moment near the end of Claire Denis's 1994 film J'ai pas sommeil in which Camille (Richard Courcet)—the handsome, gay, Martinican dandy we have spent eighty-seven minutes watching mope, wander, screw, dance, kill, and mumble his way through the space of the dix-huitième arrondissement of Paris—finally becomes aware of a more intimate space he is sharing with Daïga (Katerina Golubeva), the beautiful Lithuanian immigrant who has been silently watching him with us. They are in a café, standing next to each other at the bar; she has ordered a coffee, he sips at a glass of red wine. They do not converse. Camille passes Daïga a sachet of sugar, quietly pays the barman for both drinks, and leaves the café, exhaling a muttered "Salut!" as he goes. Daïga responds with an only slightly more audible "Salut!"

In the course of the scene, Denis films the two actors in seven different shots. Six of the shots insist, in at least three different ways, on a certain disjunction between the two characters within the tight space they nevertheless occupy together at the bar. Two close-up shots show Camille's opaque, vaguely amused face, staring down towards the ground, or else blankly, nervously ahead towards the bar. Two medium shots show Daïga snatching brief, increasingly expectant glances from the left-hand side of the frame at Camille, who refuses to return her gaze, only the dark bulk of his left shoulder visible in the right-hand side of the frame. One long shot and one medium shot do go so far as to reveal the two characters actually standing together—and more or less the whole of them—except that a gold-coloured pillar sticking up from the bar intermittently blocks Camille's head, or else inserts itself troublingly between the two bodies. At the heart of the sequence though is the fourth shot, a justly celebrated close-up, in which Camille passes Daïga the sachet of sugar. As Daïga's fingers brush Camille's hand on the surface of the dispenser, the image of the film seems imperceptibly to stutter. It is as if the inexpressibly erotic space within which the long-delayed touch between the two protagonists occurs is too excited to function properly, to the extent that the film itself stumbles, momentarily out of joint.1

This brief moment of slightly dazed touching at the bar of the café is the one time in the film when Daïga and Camille are permitted to share something approaching a conscious form of intimacy. The interaction is furthermore noteworthy for the way in which it allows Camille to demonstrate a singular [End Page 154] capacity for hospitality: in passing Daïga the sugar, in paying for her coffee with no expectation of reward, Camille steps outside every characteristic with which we have hitherto associated him, suddenly becoming, within the miraculous space of the café, the foreign Daïga's temporary and inexplicable 'host.' Both he and Daïga have hitherto been dependent on the ambivalent (and limited) hospitality of other, more powerful, more settled characters. Simultaneously ephemeral, frustrating, and vertiginous, this shaky instant of a new kind of hospitality is all the more noteworthy for being a mere crumb, a droplet of misplaced anticipation that announces itself as utterly, teasingly insubstantial from the outset. Denis's film refuses to allow Camille and Daïga to negotiate the tiny space in which they find themselves together, to 'farm' it, to make it work. Instead, that space is represented as pure, flickering, fragile potential—and it vanishes almost as quickly as it has appeared.

A space of barriers and fragments

The disjointed, chopped-up district of the dix-huitième as it emerges in J'ai pas sommeil remains, for the most part, an isolating space, difficult to navigate.2 Denis's editing and mise en scène frequently cause the cityscape to appear so broken and full of barriers that its stultified subjects might as well be miming listlessly to one another from glass boxes that have been...