I just saw Trouble Every Day, the latest film by Claire Denis. I seem to be one of the very few people who actually liked it. It’s gotten bad reviews from nearly every reviewer, except for my friend Charles Mudede. But I think it is an amazing film…
Claire Denis has gradually been winning recognition as one of the greatest directors of her generation. Her previous film, Beau Travail, is probably her masterpiece to date. But even many of Denis’ supporters have had problems with her turn to horror in Trouble Every Day. The odd combination of pulp and art film is probably what turns people off. I don’t mean by this that Denis is giving us gore with arty, pictorially luscious flourishes. Much more difficultly and disturbingly, she approaches her extravagant subject matter with an understated patience and precision. This is a vampire/cannibalism film that has more in common with, say, Bresson’s Pickpocket or Antonioni’s Eclipse, than it does with Silence of the Lambs or Suspiria.
Trouble Every Day juxtaposes the stories of two people–played by Beatrice Dalle and Vincent Gallo, respectively–who (as the result of some biomedical research gone awry) have developed a compulsion with (literally) fucking strangers to death. The most astonishing, and horrific, sequence in the film shows Dalle consuming (the best word I can think of) a young intruder who has broken into the house to rob it, and released her from her imprisonment in the attic. The scene is shot mostly in close-ups: hands moving over flesh, and intense, tightly focused facial expressions, accompanied by the loudness of voices panting in desire and pain and ecstasy. Dalle starts by convulsively clutching at the man’s body, and ends by biting away the flesh from his face as she screams orgasmically. The sequence is exultant, and scary as all hell. As if to say, this is the violence of gratified desire, when the self lets go of itself in passion, and eroticism is pushed as far as it can be. This is what it means to let go, to give oneself over entirely to the flame of the erotic. Be careful about what you ask for, because you just may get it, and it may well turn out to be a nightmare from which you are unable to awake.
Vincent Gallo’s character is the opposite of Dalle’s. Infected by the same madness, he struggles for the whole film to resist his obsession, and hopefully to find a cure for it. Gallo is in Paris on honeymoon with his almost disgustingly conventional, pre-women’s-liberation bride. You imagine that she got him by following The Rules. She subordinates herself to him entirely, clings to his every word, look, and expression, and worries only about holding on to him and being the Total Woman of his fantasies. And Gallo spends nearly the whole film trying to exorcise his bloodthirsty passion, and be instead the man his wife imagines she has married. But of course, the struggle is an uneven one, and in the end he succumbs.
So what we see in Gallo’s portion of the film is a kind of emptiness–the emptiness of anticipation, which is a frequent element of horror, but also the emptiness of non-desire, of life constricted within the bounds of bourgeois propriety. The film is mostly about waiting, and its editing captures the rhythms of this waiting, this emptiness, this time of desperation and fear in which nothing happens, in which desire is postponed and averted.
In Trouble Every Day, life is a wound, an incurable affliction. Claire Denis forces us to look this life in the face, and realize that there is no escape from it, not even in death. Isn’t this the deepest mission of the horror genre, to strip away our complacencies and face the “pity and terror” that are the subject of all great tragedy, but without giving us the cathartic purgation that tragedy is supposed to provide.