Claire Denis has been clear from the start: “I don’t remember being afraid of anything in making films.” Without fear, cinema becomes chemically pure again, focused on the frame and the cut, relieved of pretentiousness and egotism, with little dialogue, but many lingering glances. No explanations, just the unsaid. What Denis asks from the viewer is to invest in her characters and an unstable narrative structure in order to connect the dots through imagery. The images she uses are like a poison—we know they are bad, but they look so good and are difficult to forget. Hence the irresistible desire to ingest her films.
This narrative radicality is precisely what attracts, bewitches and obsesses us. What we witness circulates in our brain like contaminated blood. In the last fifteen years, we got an idea of the blood pressure which flooded the veins of her films in The Intruder and Bastards. But if we were to use blood as a metaphor, Trouble Every Day wins on all counts. Because this “bloody” film is unlike any other horror film. Hey, a horror film directed by Claire Denis could be nothing other than unique.
Flesh And Blood
Vampire film or cannibal film? A bit of both, and neither of those at the same time. As a worthy researcher (or even intruder) in French cinema driven by her obsession with naturalism, Claire Denis succeeds in infiltrating the horror genre because she remains faithful to all her passions. She already had a taste for atmospheric tension, which place the unanswered questions of the story into weightlessness while enriching the story itself by requiring the viewer’s deduction and intuition. Denis also uses gestures and glances like a science, which captures the inexpressible by clever tricks of framing and editing. Finally, the mystery of the body. Tracked and dissected by a camera-scalpel which attempts to reveal its organic matter, the inner mechanism, the hidden secret. Three chosen techniques which, by their fusion, draw a link between the conventions of horror films and those of the director’s signature style, with an experimental twist.
So, of course, Claire Denis’ “vampire” escapes all stereotypes. It is not a Dracula-style romantic fantasy character—we’re tired of them. It is even less a substitute Pete Doherty, spread with sparkly moisturiser as in Twilight. No, it is merely a being of flesh and blood. Anonymous now but previously integrated into society, now consumed from the inside by extreme and unspeakable desires. A sexual desire, which leads from passion and transforms first into the need to possess, and then to outright devour. And these poor neurotic creatures, the worst thing for them is that they are not able to restrain their impulses and they are very aware of their barbarity, which makes them sick to death of themselves.
This is the first angle of attack by the film. You must tackle your thoughts on the extremes of sexual desire, then go through a dissection of obsessive neurosis. You may feel some compassion for these tortured souls, but they do the most terrible things to innocent people. And as much as they want to be free, they don’t end their own lives. Does the obsession keep them alive? Anyone who has ever fallen in love knows that feeling; the want and need for that person can be torturous and overwhelming. You don’t want to die though; you want to feel everything—a yearning is worth living for. From beginning to end, Trouble Every Day destabilises what you thought you thought, and creates terrible anguish within you.
Denis immerses us in the mood from the inaugural shots of her film, before even starting to draw the slightest narrative line. That said, Trouble Every Day contrasts with the arrangement of narrative scraps which until this film had been the salt of the openings of her films. Who are these two lovers who kiss tenderly in the seat of a car? We do not know, and even having read the cast list we do not learn who the actors are. And why this shot of the Seine, drowned in the glowing colours of the dawn by the masterful cinematographer Agnes Godard? What do these two images have to do with the plot? We can return to the idea of contamination by the mixture of blood and sex. A tender, but lusterless kiss, followed by a stretched black screen—you can read it like an ellipse—which is followed by a shot of the Seine transformed into a river of blood. Born of sexual desire, these “purple rivers” will soak the entire urban territory where the film takes place; a realistically grey Paris by day, then a gorgeous palette of colour at dusk and dawn. Bold symbolism masterfully made fluid by the growing and calming melody of the Tindersticks, which links the division between the theme of the film and its beautiful imagery.
Once this short prologue is finished, the story can finally start. Within seconds it’s shocking. It only takes a look here for the misery to overwhelm us. The look of a young woman named Coré (the incredible Béatrice Dalle), alone in a parking lot at dawn, observing a trucker who gets out of his vehicle, then runs towards her, visibly attracted. The actress’s wide eyes stare at us, translating here a thought that is impossible to define, a desire that is impossible to define. Too intense to be harmless. Little by little, the sound of the truck engine drops to dead silence. The anxiety rises and suddenly crystallises, as we see Coré’s husband, Léo (Alex Descas), disembarking a motorbike to find his wife hiding on an embankment, looking dismayed and covered with blood. Her mouth and face caked in thick dark red gore and the trucker now a mutilated corpse.
We meet another couple, newlyweds Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey). Their connection to Coré and Léo is made quite quickly due to clues that Denis sprinkles over the scenes. We learn that Shane, a scientist by trade, first came to Paris to find Léo, a doctor shunned for his research on botany, with whom he had shared research work in Guyana and who would obviously be the only one to know—perhaps even to cure—the strange evil that gnaws at him. An ailment that we immediately identify as being the same as that of Coré since Shane barely resists the urge to bite the milky skin of his brand new wife as they travel by plane from America. Just to see his piercing look when he observes her body naked in the opaque water of a bathtub, you can see that he loves her, but can you love too much? Enough to make you want to devour them?
As for Léo, he tries as hard as he can to protect Coré from her cannibalistic sexual urges (and suicidal tendencies) by locking her up in their suburban lodge. You may think this is turning into a scientific thriller, but the film goes no further in that direction—other than for Shane to be desperately seeking Léo but never finding him. The cure is not the real subject here; it is a study of human and animalistic behaviours, arranged in sights and sounds which both awe and repulse. Trouble Every Day leaves the drama aside to give the visual imagery the leading role, inviting its audience to surrender to the slow rhythm of the scenes.
There is a dull terror that takes place in almost all of the scenes. From the aeroplane whose passengers sleep with their mouths open making them look like corpses, a scientific laboratory where pieces of brain are sliced with the jerky noise of a magnetic stirrer in the background and a hotel with empty corridors—framed in a Shining style symmetry— they all generate unexplained anxiety.
Two of them are wholly unforgettable. The first, sandwiched between two shots of a tormented Shane, clearly reflecting his mental image: we see June’s naked body, smeared with very red and very thick blood, against the background of a buzzing noise. The second is a flashback which fixates on fleeting looks, then a discussion between Shane and a red-haired scientist whose stare, as sickly as it is terrifying, makes her seem like a witch. Even if the shot is just of a concrete block, the tension Denis creates is still high down to its strangeness. Denis does not need to add jump scares because her camera is like a probe, an exclusive connection with the abyss of the subconscious—at least up until a pivotal scene that literally changes the game.
Indeed, just when you think that Claire Denis would stick to a simple gauging of this underlying tension, it suddenly betrays this apparent calm by changing shape halfway, by ramping up this cannibal neurosis that Coré and Shane seem unable to repress. In a traumatic scene, the director honours one of the multiple points of similarity between Hitchcock and Truffaut in their scenes of murder and their scenes of love. Except that here, it is literal: the sexual embrace between Coré and a young neighbour who came to set her free (played by Nicolas Duvauchelle) quickly becomes cannibalism. Eros and Thanatos meet.
The circle of blood mirrors that of sex: the kiss becomes bite, the bite becomes penetration, and the blood that spurts is a symbol of enjoyment and release. Coré is both wild and maternal in the cannibal embrace (who else could have pulled that off other than Béatrice Dalle?), as Denis delves into the depths of sexual desire, targeting both depravity and dependence. And it doesn’t take much to get there: filming the skin with sensuality and the wound with ferocity turns out to be enough to lead to a simulated moment of “intimate horror”. Not to mention the blood itself, a visually fascinating material that had never been filmed like this before in cinema.
The second part of the film, more refined but no less disturbing, follows the same logic by shifting this time the cursor of anxiety on the character of Shane. Again, no explanation as to the origin of his illness (other than a flash scene with Aurore Clément who plays another scientist, which will be quickly cut by an ellipse), but a series of silent scenes where the irresistible call of the flesh slowly sets within him. Each time it’s the tender touches of his intimacy with June which drive his desire. The couple on a walk on the balconies of Notre-Dame Cathedral, next to the gargoyles. At one point, we see Shane having fun imitating Quasimodo at the same time grimacing and pulling threatening faces in front of June, who evokes the spirit of Esmeralda hidden under an elegant green veil. But suddenly, June’s veil flies into the air, symbolically signalling the monstrous becoming of Shane (which will be much worse than Quasimodo) and the end of beautiful moments between them.
After this June and Shane barely spend a second together, and while she doesn’t realise it, she is lucky. Shane begins fixating on the hotel maid, Christelle (Florence Loiret-Caille) who cleans their room every day. He does eventually find Léo’s house, but Léo is not home. Coré is. He finds her drenched in blood; they embrace first then attack, with Shane winning the battle by forcing her to the ground and strangling her—presumably to death. He leaves the house ablaze, but Léo returns home. Does he try or even succeed in saving his wife? Did Shane do the thing Léo wanted but couldn’t bring himself to do? We will never know, but we know that his life changed for the better and worse that day.
Shane finds it harder and harder to resist his urges, observing many attractive women as he walks the Parisian streets. Every one of them has the potential to be his victim. He buys an adorable puppy, and I am sure every single person watching dreads that poor little dog becoming a light meal. But of course Denis does not go there; the eating of flesh is a sexual urge, not for survival like your typical vampire. Instead, Shane gives the puppy to June to keep her company because he is just not there for her anymore. His need to devour has taken priority over literally everything else.
Eventually, in a harrowing scene, Shane gives in. He follows the maid Christelle as she gets changed after finishing her shift. Standing in just her underwear, he embraces her, and at first she reciprocates. Within seconds he becomes rough with her, forcing her arms behind and tackling her to the ground. Her screams are torturous as he sinks his teeth into her genitals, devouring her completely, killing her. He may try to wash his hands of this, but the blood will be hard to get off. He is possessed, forever sick, forever lost.
From the beginning to the end, Claire Denis engineers her scenes with a scalpel-like incision, opening and rummaging inside a wound that we thought was closed. For the characters, this plague is clearly a difficult desire to suppress. But for the spectator, it is quite another matter. By bringing together the flesh and the cerebral with the same abstraction as Cronenberg, she places our subconscious thoughts in her line of sight.
In the final scene of the film, June and Shane embrace as he steps out of the shower. He tells her he’s feeling better now. She notices blood dripping down the shower screen. We never learn if June was aware of her husband’s desires for flesh and blood. It is left to us to decide whether the images of June’s bloodied body on the hotel room floor were a fantasy or a flashforward to what happens next. That is perhaps the real horror. Coré and Shane may be monsters, but they are far from the only ones. They are not supernatural beings, they are predatory humans, and we could be living next door to someone with the same primal desires for all we know.
In these moments, we realise that the film has “cannibalised” us. The material she works with has a double effect in Trouble Every Day; it burns as much as it freezes. It’s terrible, but it leaves pretty scars—beautiful, horrible work Claire Denis, one of the great, brave and enchanting directors of our time.