Yesterday I went to see the family of the infamous murderer of old ladies, Thierry Paulin. Claire Denis’ 1993 film, ‘J’ai pas sommeil’ was influenced by the Paulin affair which shocked France in the 1980s. As I am writing about the film for my thesis, a friend here in Martinique had urged me to go to the town where Paulin grew up. I was given an idea of a restaurant which was rumoured to have belonged to Thierry’s father and told to simply ask a few herb-smoking ‘gars’ hanging around, to find out what they could tell me. Sure enough on arriving in the area I happened to spy on a couple of young men skinning up, who were able to direct me to the family restaurant. It was right there facing me. I suddenly felt very timid as I hadn’t thought about what exactly I was going to say. Why had I even come? What did I want them to tell me? I asked the young man working in the interior of the restaurant if this place did indeed belong to the Paulin family and his face lit up. Yes it was his family patati patata…and then I mentioned Thierry and his face dropped. Thierry was his cousin and he’d had him on the phone two weeks before his arrest, asking if he was interested in coming over to the métropole to play in a group he was forming. He seemed completely normal, the family had not suspected a thing.
I explained my project as transparently as I could and he asked me if I had come to ask the family’s permission before writing. This threw me as although I had considered to some extent how Thierry’s family must have felt on the release of the film, I had ashamedly not thought of the impact of my own writing about the film and I hesitate even in writing about this meeting on my blog. In honesty I hadn’t expected to find the family so easily.
He called his uncle, whose first concern was whether I was a journalist or not. After having explained that it was a doctoral project, which would focus on the filmic representation rather than the crime, we sat and chatted with relative ease. I asked if either of them had seen the film and they told me no and that they had no intention of seeing it. It was clear that the matter was a closed subject within the family, in order to protect their own moral wellbeing as his tonton (uncle) explained, yet they both had fully realised theories in relation to the case nonetheless.
His tonton described Thierry as ‘hexagonale’, as opposed to ‘negropolitain’, pinpointing the moment it all started to go wrong as when the 12 year-old set foot in the métropole. According to tonton, even though he was over there, his spirit remained in the Antilles throughout his time living in France. This I found at odds with the character of Camille in Denis’ film, who seems entirely detached from his Antillean identity, claiming “il y a rien là-bas”. Yet as the film shows, this could merely be another mask.
This short and amicable meeting is still percolating and haunting my thoughts and will surely transform how I now view Denis’ representation of Thierry. I felt particularly ill at ease when his tonton asked how I had located the family and how I knew where their restaurant was. At this point it was like admitting that, although the case was not widely covered in the Martinican press, certain people knew the facts of the affair in Martinique and had not yet forgotten.