Retro Review: Trouble Every Day (2001).
Claire Denis’ erotic horror film is both sensuous and senseless, bloody yet bland.
I wanted to conclude my look at Claire Denis’ films by reviewing one of her earlier works…but they’re damn hard to get your hands on. The only way to see Beau Travail in the US, the film most often name-dropped in descriptions of her work, is to watch a compressed and un-subtitled You Tube video or fork over three hundred dollars on Amazon. Amazon did, however, point me to Trouble Every Day, the next film Denis made, for the low cost of free. After watching, that feels like just about the right price.
Trouble Every Day is an erotic thriller/horror that manages to avoid thrilling you. There are deft visual compositions, much like in her new film High Life, but they feel like curiosities instead of organic pieces of the narrative. The narrative itself disappoints: the surface level is facile, and its themes are left undeveloped. The story of a sexual desire manifesting as bloodlust is as old as vampire stories, and the dialogue, pacing, and acting all work to strip the sex and blood of even shock value.
Trouble Every Day (2001).
Researcher Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) is on his way to France with his new bride for their honeymoon. Unbeknownst to the young woman, Brown is actually trying to track down former acquaintances – Dr. Semeneau and his wife Coré (Béatrice Dalle.) Semeneau was working on a brain parasite that unleashed violent urges in its victims, which is now apparently affecting his wife. Brown had an unrequited passion for Coré, and wound up stealing the doctor’s findings for his medical firm. Now he’s starting to feel a call to violence, and needs Semeneau to stop him before he hurts someone.
In the Moment.
Claire Denis’ creates an extremely tactile style of film making. I noticed it in High Life every time Robert Pattinson shaved: the sound of the razor, the perceptible drag of it across the skin and the closeness of the camera made you want to rub your own chin. That is certainly the case here in Trouble Every Day, where the camera hovers over the skin of our protagonists, sometimes like a lovers lip’s and sometimes like a butcher’s knife. One early scene has Dr. Semeneau patiently scrubbing Coré after one of her kills. The slow and deliberate strokes of the sponge is both tender and oddly clinical. That juxtaposition of intimacy and estrangement is the defining mood of the piece.
Denis also creates striking tableau’s of visual art. The opening scenes feature some excellent compositional shots, where the city lights on a choppy river or the swirling reds and oranges of a sunset call to mind the brush strokes of a Van Gogh painting. They’re beautiful. The problem is that they don’t mean anything.
Trouble Every Day has a frustrating tendency to be both completely obvious and yet coy about its ideas. There’s layers, but they’re either trivially trite or vaguely insinuating to the point of evaporation. The first hour contains almost no dialogue, making you try to intuit why a newlywed couple and a man caring for a cannibal are in the same movie. A few scenes where Brown imagines Coré covered in blood are completely ineffective as the actress is so drenched I couldn’t tell who the hell was under all the red corn syrup. So we fumble around for an hour until Brown talks to a former colleague of Semeneau’s, who pretty much word-vomits the plot. We then get a flashback in which Brown word-vomits his motivations and the history of the three characters. It was so poorly done that I paused the movie and didn’t come back to it for a whole day.
Thematically, there ain’t much special going on here. Cannibalism as a nakedly Freudian expression of sexual possession. Thanks. I’m glad I stuck around two hours for that hot take. Maybe that idea was subversive in Paris in 2001…though I highly doubt it. Around the same time, High Tension came out of France and THAT is a film that shocks with its frank sexual identity politics and violence to great effect. Trouble Every Day? The film’s ideas feel like a teenager trying to shock their parents with black lipstick.
Everything about Trouble Every Day feels like bad poetry. It is sluggish in its pace, dwells overly long on ideas that are not nearly as interesting as is supposed, and poses for effect too often. Vincent Gallo seems to just exist to leer into the middle distance like a glutton at the meat counter. Dalle has a perpetual post-coital look on her face, like a glutton who has jumped the meat counter and packed away all of the best steaks in one go. There’s little subtlety to the acting and directing.
In the end, I wish I’d been able to get my hands on Beau Travail.