[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Ed Howard: Claire Denis has always been a fascinating and elusive director, making strange, ambiguous movies where meanings are inscribed between the lines, in images and charged silences rather than in the minimal dialogue. Trouble Every Day is quite possibly her most challenging and unsettling film, both utterly typical of her approach—quiet, patiently paced, enigmatic in its characterization and plotting—and yet also a true outlier in her career. For one thing, in terms of genre it's a horror film, and one of the reasons I was interested in talking about it with you, Jason, is that you've previously expressed a general disinterest in horror as a genre. Of course, this is not a genre that one would have intuitively attributed to Denis based on the films she made before (1999's Billy Budd parable Beau travail) and after (2002's poetic ode to a one-night stand, Vendredi soir). And her approach to horror is very unusual and idiosyncratic, even though she does eventually deliver enough gore and viscera to sate even the most jaded Saw franchise junkie.
As Andrew O'Hehir described it, "Watching Trouble Every Day, at least if you don't know what's coming, is like biting into what looks like a juicy, delicious plum on a hot summer day and coming away with your mouth full of rotten pulp and living worms." That's a lurid image, and an appropriate one for a movie whose own most potent, unforgettable images are also gustatory. That Salon review was from the film's original US release in 2002, and it's possible that anyone seeing the film for the first time now has more of an idea about what's coming. So before rewatching the film for this conversation, I had wondered if some of the impact of Denis' film came from the element of surprise, from being taken unaware by the film's bloody sexual horror.
However, upon revisiting it I found myself as entranced as ever by its haunting imagery and slow build-up, and as repulsed and affected by its shocking outbursts of violence. I'm curious, though, since you hadn't seen the film before, both how much you knew about it beforehand and what your initial (visceral) reaction was.
Jason Bellamy: I hope I don't have to turn in my movie lover's card for this, but I wasn't even aware of Trouble Every Day before you proposed it for this conversation. As you know, I like going into movies unawares, so beyond the title and the director all I knew about the movie was that it in some way applied to the one word that jumped out at me in the Netflix blurb: "cannibalism." That's it. Thankfully, the cannibalism element is the first thing to arrive—we recognize it before we even recognize the characters involved—so it's not like watching Citizen Kane and knowing the meaning of Rosebud. For almost everyone, I presume, the portrayal of cannibalism in a modern-day, first-world setting is shocking to behold whether you're expecting it or not. To put it another way: I'm not sure one can ever be fully prepared for the sight of humans feasting on one another with sexual delight, especially when it's portrayed as straightforwardly and soberly (without camp) as it is here.
You called Trouble Every Day a horror film, but is it? I mean, yes, it has horrific imagery. Yes, at times it's bathed in blood. Yes, there is suggestion of a kind of otherworldly, demonic possession. No, I can't deny that it feels like something close to "traditional horror," whatever that means these days. But, even as I was watching it for the first time, Trouble Every Day seemed closer to Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut than to, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The principal reason for that, I believe, is that the movie invites us to experience its horrors through the urges of the characters inflicting the damage. Most horror films, it seems to me, align us with the fear of the potential victims (slasher movies) or attempt to titillate us with the massiveness of their ghastly spectacles ("torture porn" movies). That said, I don't want to undersell the significance of the grotesqueries here, because the extremeness of cannibalism is as fundamental to the root themes of Trouble Every Day as the extremeness of the sex is fundamental to Eyes Wide Shut. Cannibalism isn't what this movie is about, per se, but that doesn't mean it's some simple window dressing that could be easily removed or swapped out for something else. It seems to me that Trouble Every Day must shock us, must genuinely unsettle us, in order to be effective.
So, to answer your question, yes, I was unsettled and viscerally disturbed. I'm not sure I want to meet the person who can watch Trouble Every Day without being repulsed in some way. And yet sickened though I was by some of the images, I was never offended, and that's significant. I never found the gore of Denis' film to be cheap or empty, and in that way the film is very watchable, even though it forced me to close my eyes more than once. I won't pretend that I fully understand the purpose of all the horror in this film, and yet it all feels specifically purposeful, putting it in stark contrast to the comparatively broad and random repulsiveness of a film by Lars von Trier, who has always struck me as kind of the Johnny Strabler of cinema provocateurs. ("What are you rebelling against, Lars?" "Whaddya got?") So my first response is that the film is compelling. However, I'm already beginning to wonder if I'll continue to feel that way once the vibrations of that initial viewing have left my system.
EH: I'm glad you were able to experience this film for the first time with such minimal preconceptions; I agree with you that that's always the best way to approach any film, but it's especially the case here. Denis is deliberately playing with expectations and looking to shock the audience. And yes, one of the ways she achieves this is by engaging with the conventions of the horror genre. I did call Trouble Every Day a horror movie, and I think it is one by all but the most restrictive of definitions. Not only because it's gory and violent, though at times it is, and not only because it features a pair of human (or superhuman?) monsters stalking and killing their prey. It's a horror movie because Denis deliberately set out to make a horror movie, to bring her characteristic style—moody, slow-paced, elliptical—to bear on the conventions of a genre far from her seeming natural territory.
She also draws on a very specific kind of horror. I do not see in Trouble Every Day anything like a "demonic possession," which would imply an external, non-human force supplanting human responsibility. I think that idea would be uninteresting to Denis, who's always been drawn to human actions and their repercussions: Beau travail and L'intrus are all about guilt, betrayal and the weight of the past, just as Trouble Every Day is about infidelity and lust. This film is more in the tradition of "mad science" horror fiction like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and its many descendants: the horror arises because science has unleashed the terrible impulses already latent within humanity. Mr. Hyde is terrifying because his existence suggests that he was present within the kindly Dr. Jekyll all along; by the same token, the sexualized cannibalism of Coré (Beatrice Dalle) and Shane (Vincent Gallo) is an extreme relative of the gestures and emotions at the heart of "normal" sexual relations. (Think of the scene where Coré, after mutilating a young man she's seduced, cradles him in her arms and tenderly kisses his bloody, torn-apart mouth. In her outré way, she's actually quite loving and passionate.)
At the same time, you're certainly right that the film reverses and subverts many mainstays of the horror genre, at least as it's currently conceived. Trouble Every Day does in general follow the story of the "monsters" rather than the victims, though not entirely: the hotel maid Christelle (Florence Loiret) is a traditional horror movie victim and audience surrogate, which Denis reinforces with the frequent shots of the back of her neck, as though the camera were a stalker perched just over the poor girl's shoulder, dogging her towards her inevitable gory end. Actually, though, I'm not even sure that horror movies always align us with the fears of the victims. Some horror films, it's true, rely entirely on our fear of being killed in gruesome ways, but for me the most interesting horror is about unleashing exaggerated versions of the horrible forces lying dormant within us all. David Cronenberg's early "body horror" films are variations on this theme, and Denis' horror is a descendant of his work. She's also consciously referencing a much older horror tradition, the ultra-familiar Hollywood classics like Frankenstein and Dracula. Denis signals her alignment with such early forebears by having her own two "monsters" strike poses straight from the Universal horror catalog: Coré standing by a roadside, lifting her coat up around her like batwings (and in some ways she is a vampire), and the hulking Shane playfully lumbering at his young bride June (Tricia Vessey) with his arms outstretched like Frankenstein's monster or the Mummy.
JB: OK. I dig what you're saying in relation to the "older horror tradition." Along those lines, I agree with you; Trouble Every Day is of that ilk. That said, I think your dismissal of the "demonic possession" idea contrasts with your suggestion that this follows the "mad science" tradition. Sure, I realize that one influencer is spiritual and the other is elemental, but either way these monsters are made monstrous by an outside force. Is an impulse really an impulse if it requires a potion to unleash it? I ask not to be generally argumentative but because I'm not convinced this is a movie about "infidelity and lust." I wouldn't argue those elements aren't part of the story, but I don't see them at the center. If that's the case, what is the movie trying to tell us, that deep inside we covet people with such ferocity that we want to devour them? I could buy that reading if Coré only coveted people she knew, but she'll eat anyone she can get her hands on. Her lust seems to be a byproduct of a need for human flesh as sustenance rather than the other way around. Coré isn't acting on a fetish or an emotional impulse but on a chemically-induced biological urge.
If I'm properly connecting the film's vague dots (and I might not be), Coré and Shane are essentially infected. They are diseased. Without this infection, they wouldn't have these perverse needs and thus wouldn't act this way, and without the mysterious drug that caused this whole mess they wouldn't be infected. As a result, I don't look at Coré and Shane as portals to our dormant demons. I see nothing that reflects my own soul. What I do see in Trouble Every Day is a chilling portrait of addiction. Coré and Shane aren't addicted to the drug that made them want blood but to the blood itself. Same difference. Now infected, they want to do nothing but "use." Coré's husband looks out for her, tries to protect her from herself, hopes to cure her and over and over again gets stuck cleaning up her messes. Shane, meanwhile, sleepwalks through his daily life, unable to connect with anyone outside of his addiction. If I wanted to pick a film that would exemplify the disease model for addiction, it would be hard to do better than Trouble Every Day, which shows how chemical imbalances in the brain obliterate normal rational thought so that ethics are meaningless. Coré and Shane never engage in any should-I or shouldn't-I bargaining, because they can't get that far. They just act, unable to imagine a world without their "drug."
Is that a plausible reading? Or did I miss something?
EH: I think that's a great reading, actually. One of the things I love about this film is how open it is, how receptive it is to alternative interpretations of its ambiguous chain of events. So I'd agree with your reading while also suggesting that it's not necessarily mutually exclusive with my own. Literally speaking, of course you're right, both Coré and Shane are driven by urges beyond their control, unleashed by a science experiment gone wrong.
On another level, though, this film, like many of its ancestors in the "mad science" genre, is symbolic more than literal. It's almost misleading to talk about the film's story, since the actual experience of the film is not of a linear plot; the story has to be pieced together from minimal clues, while the relationships and motivations of the characters are hinted at rather than spelled out directly. I think this suggests that the literal story—an experiment that turned its test subjects into voracious sexual cannibals—is perhaps secondary to the metaphorical implications, the treatment of Coré and Shane's "disease" as an outlandish mutation of human sexuality. What I meant by rejecting the "demonic possession" interpretation of the film is that whatever happened to Coré and Shane was not merely an external imposition. Not only because they were experimenting on themselves à la Dr. Jekyll, either. It's more like the monstrousness brought out in them by a drug is an extension or warping of ordinary humanity.
You say that you see nothing in these characters that reflects your own soul, to which I can only say, "I hope not!" At the same time, I think Coré and Shane's urges are related, however distantly, to more familiar sexual feelings. One of the film's most uncomfortable scenes is the one where Shane interrupts sex with June by going to the bathroom to masturbate instead, violently and joylessly, while June cries against the door outside. Sure, in terms of the plot the meaning of this scene is obvious, at least once one grasps that Shane is struggling with urges that link his sexuality to murderous inclinations. But it's also a potent depiction of disconnection and solipsism, of the tension between the selfish, lustful desire for release and the more romantic personal connections of love.
For me, the film is about exploring human behavior as a network of primal urges and biological imperatives: the "potion" that transforms Coré and Shane into killers doesn't impose something foreign on them, it simply strips their behavior to a hard core of pure, overpowering impulse. I think the movie suggests, not that deep down we want to devour those we covet, but that deep down we are creatures of impulse, driven by mysterious and powerful biological forces of survival and reproduction. The "disease" of Coré and Shane is a reminder that sexuality is evolutionary and instinctive, that what we call love and desire are actually imprinted in our genome; sexuality is always a loss of control. This is why Denis keeps returning to the scientists in their lab, and at one point focuses on a closeup of a brain as it's dissected. She's probing the mysterious forces at work within the human brain, the compulsions and instinctive behaviors that drive us even when we think we're moving of our own free will. She's wondering if it's possible to ever truly know another person's mind, no matter how close we are to them, as June begins to wonder if she knows her own husband, beginning to be afraid of what might be lurking behind his pale blue eyes. I don't think Denis is saying that people, if stripped of self-control, would behave as Coré and Shane do; but she is suggesting that our behaviors and thoughts are to some extent beyond our control, that our minds contain primitive and perhaps frightening corners beneath the veneer of civilization and convention.
JB: Or maybe the repeated brain shots—there's one in the cellar of Coré's home, too—are there to reinforce the absolutism with which brains define who we are. Logically we know this to be true, but it's hard to shake the romantic notions of "heart" and "soul." There's something cold and dispassionate about attributing feelings of love to the same organ that controls our general functionality. People say all the time, "My head tells me this, but my heart tells me that," when the truth is that our brains tell us everything. Thus, once our brain becomes damaged, we are rewritten—similar but not the same. That's what happens here.
Again, this works well as a metaphor for the disease model of addiction, because it shows how futile it is to reason with addiction. The brain controls the person, and so if the disease controls the brain then the disease is running the show. In that sense it doesn't really matter whether the science experiment gone wrong enabled something dormant in the brains of Coré and Shane or instead created something that wasn't there to begin with, just like it ultimately doesn't matter whether an alcoholic is hereditarily predisposed to the addiction or is the first of his/her family to find the bottle. Addicted is addicted. Diseased is diseased. The root is irrelevant.
But is the root irrelevant within Denis' art? I'm not so sure. Trouble Every Day is significantly more challenging and unsettling if it's meant to reveal our innate hidden horrors, as you're suggesting. If the science experiment gone wrong turned Coré and Shane into monsters, then we can dismiss their monstrousness by blaming the drug that stimulated the disease. At that point Trouble Every Day becomes a depiction of "them," the sick, instead of "us." Maybe that's why I couldn't identify with Coré and Shane, because their actions didn't seem instinctive so much as involuntary. The disease aspect gives us a convenient out. Doesn't it?
EH: That's a good point, and it's maybe why I'm so resistant to simply writing off this film's horror as merely a "disease," something outside of its human characters. If you're right that this is just a story of addiction, of people irrevocably changed into monsters by forces beyond their control, then it becomes a significantly less rich and complicated film. I think what Denis is after here is much more interesting than that. For one thing, Shane, contrary to your earlier assertion that the film's "monsters" never struggle with morality, does not entirely lose control of his actions. He does struggle with his impulses and seems aware of what's going on within him. There's that wonderful scene where, lying in bed, watching his sleeping wife, he whispers, "I would never hurt you." We of course know this to be untrue—he harbors powerful fantasies about killing her and the evidence of his violence keeps turning up on her body in the form of bruises and bite marks—but it's nevertheless obvious that he's struggling with his urges, trying to divert or stifle them, trying to uphold this heartfelt promise.
Scenes like this make the film at least partly about the damaging cycle of an unhealthy love affair, about a man who knows he's no good for the woman he loves but keeps trying to convince himself that he's going to do better, that he's not going to hurt her anymore. But we always hurt the ones we love, right? In some ways the film is about an abusive and often absent spouse, perhaps in contrast to the perverse loyalty of the marriage between Coré and Léo (Alex Descas). We feel June's confusion and pain when she waits out in the rain, desperate for some sign of her missing man, or when she goes to visit one of his old friends, hoping for some explanation for his inconstant behavior but getting only nostalgia and vague comforting words. This theme is expressed most forcefully in the ambiguous final scene, with its piercing closeups of June as she looks at her husband. We're left to wonder what she's thinking: Did she or didn't she see the single drop of another woman's blood streaming down the shower curtain?
I think you're right that the film is about the tyranny of the brain, about the way we're controlled by mysterious electrical impulses pulsing through our nervous system. But for Denis, this theme isn't about removing responsibility and agency from the equation, merely questioning and investigating what they mean when so much of human behavior originates beneath the level of consciousness. As you said, however uncomfortable we are with the idea that even love originates in the brain rather than the heart, the fact remains that in many ways we're as dominated by our brains, by our biology, as Coré and Shane are. In that respect, the film is definitely about "us," not just "them."
Denis is also interested in examining how we can form bonds when we're locked within our individual consciousnesses, unable to know what others are thinking and feeling. There's a coldness and emptiness to the gaze in this film; seldom have there been so many closeups that reveal so little, and in this respect Denis picked her actors well. Gallo's icy blue eyes in particular betray no feeling: his deadpan stare and flat affect come across the same whether he's imagining a gruesome murder, locking eyes with a cute, affectionate puppy, or clinically admiring his wife's naked body as she soaks in a bath tub. At the core of the film is the question, what's behind the eyes of the people we know and love? It's about a primal frustration, the fact that no matter how intimate we are with another person, the consciousness of the other will always remain alien and unknowable, just as our minds are for other people.
JB: That's very well argued, but your last point is best applicable to the relationship between Shane and June. Léo knows perfectly well how Coré's mind works. In fact, you could argue that he understands Coré's impulses better than she does, first because he helped create the monster living inside her and second because he's a sober observer of her unhinged condition. June, on the other hand, knows only that there's something about Shane that she doesn't know. She's an outsider in their relationship. In fact, one could argue that Denis allows June to be too much of an outsider, with some scenes playing as if June and Shane have just met rather than just married. Then again, with only a little imagination we can fill in the elliptical gaps in the story: we can assume that Shane has become increasingly distant, and that June hoped marriage would somehow cure him and that the change of scenery provided by their honeymoon couldn't hurt. You can sense that the distance between them has been growing, and the scene in which Shane must masturbate to get himself off is truly heartbreaking because he so easily and completely surrenders to his own needs while literally shutting out June. The loneliness of these characters is palpable. Same for Léo and Coré.
Indeed, these are doomed relationships long past the point of no return. Earlier you mentioned the scene in which Shane is seen "clinically admiring his wife's naked body," but that's not quite right. As the camera pans across June's body in the tub, letting us see June through Shane's eyes, Denis lingers an extra moment over June's crotch. At first, Shane's gaze suggests some kind of naïve fascination, but by the end of the shot we know that the sight of June's exposed crotch triggers Shane's abnormal urges. To stick with the addiction metaphor: an exposed crotch is never just a crotch to Shane, just as a razor blade is never just a razor blade to the cocaine addict. In that moment, Shane doesn't see his wife. He sees the potential for his next fix.
All of this leads me to a question: This film is tragic in many different directions, but which of these characters inspires the greatest amount of your sympathy?
EH: That's an interesting question, because on the surface you wouldn't really expect that any of these characters would arouse much sympathy, and not just because they're so unlikable in various ways. Denis' approach to characterization, here as in most of her work, is deliberately vague, keeping the characters' internal turmoil at a bit of a distance. And yet it's undeniable that the film is powerfully felt and emotionally intense, not to mention incredibly tragic. On some level, all of these characters are sympathetic, even (or especially) the "monsters." In fact, I'd say that of all the characters in this film, the one who moves me the most is probably Coré, who seems to have been totally consumed by the urges just beginning to affect Shane. There's a deep sadness in her character, and in the way Denis presents her. Initially, we don't see her murders, only the aftermath, presented in such poetic imagery that even the sight of a murder being cleaned up is beautiful: the dark blood glistening in the moonlight, dripping heavily off stalks of tall grass; Léo lovingly sponging the blood off his wife's naked torso; Coré sitting alone in an empty field, curled up into a ball, staring emptily into the night.
There's something ineffably haunting about Coré, about whom we learn so little. On one level, Denis presents her as a kind of abstracted horror movie monster: Dracula spreading his wings, a seductive black widow luring men to their doom, a B-movie killer calmly destroying her room with the chainsaw she keeps hidden beneath the bed. But there's also something almost childlike and serene in her, as well as that overwhelming sadness. Recognizable human emotions keep percolating up to the surface from beneath her chilly façade, like the expression of annoyance and rejection that flashes across her face when Léo cuts short some foreplay when she becomes too aroused. He's doing it out of self-preservation, knowing he's about to trigger her murderous impulses, but just because she's a killer doesn't mean she's not also a woman, and she feels hurt and rejected.
There's also the later scene where she stares with fascination at a lit match—which after our last conversation I now can't help but compare to WALL-E's EVE, awed by a cigarette lighter—and the dancing flame brings her cool green eyes alive for perhaps the first time. That's another of those "what is she thinking" moments, scenes where we look into a character's eyes and still have to wonder what's going on behind them. Denis is subverting the conventional thinking about the closeup, the idea that such intimacy with the camera allows the audience to get closer to a character. Maybe the eyes aren't really the window to anything. Here, we look into Coré's eyes and find that all we see is the illusion of life and activity, the lively sparkle of a flame reflected in this woman's otherwise impenetrable eyes. She's fascinating, and dangerous, and yes, in spite of everything, I really feel for her.
JB: I feel for Coré, too, a little more than I feel for Shane. The difference, I think, is that Coré is so consumed by her disease that she appears to have lost all control. Thus, she's innocent by reasons of insanity. Meanwhile, Shane's actions are more distasteful because at times he exhibits some measure of self-control. For that virtue he is punished, even though he and Coré suffer from the same disease. It's a familiar contradiction that pops up in society all the time: The more helpless a person becomes, the more leeway we tend to give them. At some point, the monster becomes the victim, and even though the ghastliness of their actions and the pain and suffering caused by them haven't changed in the least, somehow we accept their sins a bit more, which isn't to say we endorse them.
I also have a great deal of sympathy for June (Léo, too, but his screen time is unfortunately brief). In pondering this film, I keep asking myself: In that final scene, when June embraces Shane and maybe sees that droplet of blood running down the shower curtain, which reading is more tragic? Is it more heartbreaking if June remains clueless about Shane's addiction or if she recognizes that the only reason her husband is looking at her with comparative lucidity is because he's unleashed the beast inside of him to horrific ends? In that moment, as well as a handful of others, the ambiguity of this film enhances its richness. But there are also times when the film's inscrutableness isn't as rewarding, times when I struggled to find any satisfying rationale for what I was seeing. Chief among those offending scenes is the one just after Coré gazes into the flame of the match. Her reunion with Shane is what, exactly? A murder? An accident? Revenge? Insanity? How do you read that scene?
EH: I read it as something like an act of mercy, and maybe also a suicide. Certainly, when Coré was staring at the match, one of the thoughts that flashed through my mind was that she was contemplating ending it all, that she wanted this cycle of misery and gore to be over. So when Shane shows up not long after, it seems like Coré is to some degree embracing him as the instrument of her destruction, as a way to gain the freedom that her husband, who loves her too much, could never give her. For Shane, it's complicated: he's been looking for this woman he once had an affair with, knowing that since they were both exposed to the same process, she's likely feeling the same things he is. And maybe he doesn't want her to suffer through that. And maybe he also sees this as an opportunity to give in, without guilt, to his own murderous impulses, to kill someone and still be able to feel like he's doing something merciful. I think it's a little of both, probably.
So I see what you mean about the film's inscrutability occasionally being frustrating rather than rewarding, but for me scenes like this are rich in possible interpretations, and therefore interesting even if I can't settle on one or two satisfying readings in particular. I like that Denis seldom spells things out directly, that she allows her films to have these mysterious moments where we have to find the meaning or meanings for ourselves, often without a clear roadmap. Beau travail, which is probably my favorite of her films, ends with what can only be called an utter non-sequitur, a non-verbal scene with so little tangible connection to what came before it that it's impossible to settle on a definitive interpretation. Not that that's stopped people from trying, and I've seen many compelling readings of that scene, but I prefer moments like that to retain their mysterious aura, their potential for branching out in multiple different directions at once. There's nothing quite so destabilizing in Trouble Every Day, but there are definitely scenes where the vagueness of the storytelling allows the film to lose its linear track, to branch off down hydra-headed multiple roads. At these points, it's almost as though Denis is asking us to spin out several different films in our heads, to follow the characters along several different tracks of motivation and emotion.
JB: I enjoy a mysterious aura, too, both in theory and even in practice for most of Trouble Every Day. For whatever reason, many independent and foreign films manage to come off as almost egotistically inscrutable, as if abstraction increases depth, as if straightforwardness is the path to simplemindedness, but I don't sense that here. Nor do I sense that Denis is engaging in the kind of random mind-fucking that I've suggested David Lynch resorts to on occasion—moments wherein numerous non-sequiturs are thrown together so that the audience can be conned into giving them a deeper meaning than they deserve. (To be clear, before I'm attacked by a Lynch mob, I'm not saying all of Lynch's films are like that all of the time. I'm simply reiterating my contention that sometimes we give Lynch's work more significance and richness than it earns.) When ambiguousness is done right I think it's is usually more honest than not. Life is full of doubt and contradiction. Life is full of action taken without a plan or without an understanding of the result. It's only right that art should reflect that with ambiguousness. So in that sense I love most of what I don't know or can't quite define about Trouble Every Day. But...
Coré's death scene is unsatisfying for me because Shane's behavior seems explainable but not convincing. I can justify his actions, but in that moment Shane doesn't seem authentic: First he seeks out Coré, then he hides in the shadows. Then he confronts her and then he embraces her. Then he I-don't-know-whats her and leaves her on the floor to burn. Is she dead yet? I don't know. Is he happy? I don't know. Was this the plan all along? I don't know. But it's not the not-knowing that bothers me. It's that Shane doesn't obsess over Coré in that scene the way he does when he looks at June, the hotel maid or the woman on the train. It seems he's come to France specifically to track down Coré, and he badgers people for information as to her whereabouts, but then their meeting is swift and mostly empty. It just doesn't feel like Shane. It's not a huge flaw in the film, but it does feel like a crack in an otherwise remarkably believable world.
EH: Fair enough. The scene works for me as an anticlimactic non-confrontation between the two leads, but I understand your problems with it.
Anyway, while we're talking about Gallo, I think his casting and performance is one of the more interesting aspects of the film, and adds a certain metafictional frisson to it. Denis obviously likes working with him, since he also appeared in her short film US Go Home and as an American ex-sailor in Nénette and Boni. In all his appearances in Denis' films—as well as in his own semi-autobiographical directorial debut Buffalo '66—his character has the last name Brown, which creates a kind of connection between various incarnations of his onscreen character and his real persona. Trouble Every Day was filmed a few years before The Brown Bunny made Gallo's name synonymous with seedy onscreen sexual shenanigans, but Denis still seems to be exploiting the weird vibes the actor gives off: the contrast between his hulking, Frankensteinian body and his reedy, surprisingly high voice; the eerie, unreadable pale blue eyes. Of course, seen now, the scene where he masturbates and releases a stream of sticky white fluid onto a bath tub can only be read in relation to the infamous Chloe Sevigny blowjob scene from The Brown Bunny. Gallo seems to relish these unflinching depictions of male sexuality.
He also provides Denis with a strange, off-kilter acting presence. The first scene between Shane and June, on an airplane as they fly into Paris, has the same kind of stilted, artificial quality as much of David Lynch's dialogue in Mulholland Drive, and it's used to the same effect. These scenes play out like a movie ideal, like the stereotypical 50s sitcom vision of the happy newlywed couple: exchanging cheerful banalities, never seeming to connect, playing at love even though it's obvious that their words are flying past one another. This scene, so visually graceful and romantic with gauzy tufts of cloud floating by the airplane windows in front of the surreally happy couple, comes after we've already seen the bloody menace of Coré and right before we get a flash of Shane's own abnormal fantasy life. So Denis is positioning the movie clichés about romance and marriage sandwiched right in between her own much darker visions of sexual predation and unhealthy desires.
JB: That's an interesting observation. As for Gallo, I haven't seen all of his films, but his portrayal of Shane is my favorite performance of his career. In this film Gallo has a bit of Brandoness to him. I'm not putting the actors on the same level, but Gallo comes as close as anyone I can think of to approximating Brando's blend of square-jawed masculinity and feminine vulnerability. The scene of Gallo holding the puppy recalls Brando stroking the cat in The Godfather. Shane's mixture of menace and softness is similar to that of Terry Malloy in On the Waterfront. And then there are the disturbing sex scenes, which resemble Last Tango in Paris with their combination of tenderness, desperation and brutality.
Speaking of Last Tango in Paris: In Pauline Kael's famous rave of the Bernardo Bertolucci film, she wrote that it possesses "hypnotic excitement," "primitive force" and "thrusting, jabbing eroticism." "Exploitation films have been supplying mechanized sex—sex as physical stimulant but without any passion or emotional violence," Kael said. "The sex in Last Tango in Paris expresses the characters' drives." I presume you'd agree with me that those descriptions of Last Tango in Paris could just as easily be used to describe Trouble Every Day, but maybe not. Certainly this is a film filled with eroticism, but is it erotic? Kael called Last Tango in Paris "the most powerfully erotic movie ever made" and perhaps "the most liberating movie ever made." But while the frankness of Last Tango's sex scenes were designed to shock, there's a huge difference between sex acts involving fingernail trimmers and butter and those depicted in Trouble Every Day, right? Or wrong? Should we be horrified by what we see here? Aroused? Disgusted?
EH: Horrified, aroused, disgusted: probably a little of all three. I wouldn't go so far as to call Trouble Every Day an "erotic" film, and certainly not a "liberating" one, but at the same time there are scenes and moments here that, viewed in isolation, are erotic. The film seethes with the kind of unrestrained, uncensored sexual energy that Kael would have appreciated—sex as a physical manifestation of inner states, inner turmoil. The scene where Léo comes up behind Coré and begins kissing and caressing her is remarkably tender and erotic, which is not surprising since it's a traditional love scene right up until the point where Coré's arousal begins shading into bloodlust. What's more surprising is that Denis is also able to locate tenderness and eroticism in the scene where Léo towels off his wife's naked body after she's killed yet another innocent victim. Sure, it's horrifying, but it's also a demonstration of marital devotion, of having such overpowering love and affection for another person that one is able to tolerate even the worst aspects of the loved one. This moment echoes in the final scene between Shane and June. When they embrace, and we wonder if June saw the truth about her husband, we also wonder if their relationship could ever get to the same place as Coré and Léo's relationship.
So, yes, there is some of the eroticism that Kael is describing in this film. Disgust and horror are the obvious reactions, particularly when Coré is tearing apart that boy she lures to her bedroom, or when Shane is devouring the crotch of the hotel maid. But for every scene like that, there's another where Denis explores the sensuality and romance of love and sex. It should be said that Denis does not, in general, have a negative attitude towards sexuality; it might be easy to walk away from this film thinking it's all about the darkness and ugliness of sex, and to some degree it is, but it's also about the deep emotions and sensations at the core of human sexuality. It's a film that says: sex is powerful, it's dangerous, it's something outside of the ordinary. The same deep-rooted impulses that are the wellspring for the film's most viscerally disturbing images are also the source for the more sensual and erotic moments here. It's surely no coincidence that Denis followed up Trouble Every Day with Vendredi soir, a restrained and quiet film about a one-night stand. Like its predecessor, Vendredi soir is dialogue-free for long stretches, telling its story in sensual, atmospheric imagery, and exploring the textures of human skin and the electric possibilities opened up by sexual contact. It's as though she wanted to suggest, after making a film about the darker corners of human sexuality, that this wasn't the whole story, that this kind of passion and sensuality could as easily be redemptive as destructive. The seeds of that redemption, however, are already present in the more erotic moments of Trouble Every Day itself.
JB: That's beautifully articulated, and I think I agree with every word. Thus the only thing left for me to add would be this: I think Trouble Every Day is an erotic film, but I don't think it's trying to turn us on. In fact, Denis' willingness to allow some people to see nothing but brutality or perversion here is the very quality that allows the movie to arouse. There's no agenda here. Denis doesn't judge these characters. She doesn't moralize. As I suggested before, Coré and Shane are monsters and victims—both at the same time. Yes, Denis is trying to shock us, to make us cringe, but she's not trying to get us to fall in love with the depravity on screen or even to get us to accept it. There is room to be angered and turned off and to be touched and aroused (emotionally as well as sexually). That's rare. Again, Trouble Every Day isn't ambiguous in the way we usually define that word so much as it's honestly indistinct. The violent sex acts are like something out of a vampire movie, and yet Trouble Every Day provides "sex without phoniness," to use another Kael description of Last Tango that is entirely appropriate here.
Speaking of vampires, by the way, it's interesting to see this 2001 film for the first time in 2009, now that we're smack dab in the middle of a vampire craze headlined by the Twilight and True Blood series. If Trouble Every Day reminds me of anything it's this year's Chan-wook Park film Thirst (Bakjwi), another film that manages to balance viscera with romance. And yet despite the similarities, Trouble Every Day is more compelling to me the less it feels like horror. Maybe I've just seen the wrong kinds of horror movies over the years (Thirst is certainly an exception to the rule), but my experience has been that in all too many horror films the blood and violence aren't metaphorical so much as straightforward. It's not meant to be "real," per se, but rarely does it seem to be a path to anything deeper. I don't want to sound judgmental here, because I can relate to the cathartic rush of a fright fest. But for me, if I'm going to watch a woman bite into the throat of her lover, I prefer for there to be some significance to the gesture.
EH: I agree with you about Trouble Every Day, but I can only say that perhaps you have seen the wrong horror films. You seem to be defining horror in a rather limited way—as a visceral "fright fest" with no depth—and then praising Trouble Every Day for transcending that low threshold, becoming something more than mere horror. It reminds me of a recent post over at Bill R.'s blog, where he talks about the horror writer Peter Straub and the low reputation that horror fiction, both in print and on film, has with many critics. Bill quotes Straub: "Claiming that a work transcends its genre is almost exactly like saying, as people once were wont to do, that an accomplished African-American gentleman, someone say like John Conyers or Denzel Washington, is a credit to his race—the unstated assumption of course being that the race in question needs all the help it can get." Leaving aside Straub's questionable implication that anti-horror bias is like racism (ha!), I think he has a point. People tend to treat horror as though the worst examples of it are all the genre has to offer, while praising the best examples as though they're somehow not horror, that they're too good to be horror.
Are there plenty of lousy, formulaic horror movies that don't deliver much besides empty shocks? Sure, and as you say, they have their place. But the genre was built on deeper material. The seminal inspirational works of the genre—classic stuff like Dracula, Frankenstein, the stories of Edgar Allen Poe, etc.—aren't just empty scares; they're substantial works that present allegorical ideas or probe the human condition. A lot of horror cinema has done the same thing. In 50s Hollywood or post-war Japan, horror often expressed nuclear age angst, while people like producer Val Lewton used horror stories as vehicles for explorations of sexuality, psychology and spirituality. Lewton's great Cat People is even an antecedent for Trouble Every Day, a meditation on the destructiveness of lust and the turmoil awakened by sexual feelings. More recent examples of substantial horror also abound: Cronenberg's early films, Marina de Van's In My Skin (a close cousin of Denis' film, made the same year), the deconstructive horror of Todd Haynes' Safe, The Shining, Carrie, etc.
I'm starting to go off on a bit of a tangent, so I'll reiterate my point: I don't think it's remotely true that horror, as a genre, rarely provides "a path to anything deeper." I could see arguing that the last few decades have seen a shift in horror away from substance and towards empty slash-fests, and that the genre's high point lasted from roughly the 30s through the 50s. That's a different thing from saying that horror films are predisposed towards shallowness, or suggesting that Trouble Every Day isn't quite horror because it's too deep. The fact is, a lot of genres have been degraded over the years, not just horror. Romantic comedies used to be the territory for people like Ernst Lubitsch and Howard Hawks, and, well, now look at them. I think a genre should be a fairly neutral container: it can express whatever a filmmaker wants to express. In that sense, Trouble Every Day deserves to be considered a great horror film, an exemplar of what the genre can and should be.
JB: Maybe, but I'm conflicted. I certainly agree that I've probably seen the wrong kind of horror films, as being scared in the theater isn't one of my favorite experiences, so I rarely seek it out. On top of that, perhaps I've disparaged the genre unfairly by having a too limited view of what "horror" is; maybe I've incorrectly applied that handle to the kinds of films I don't find all that interesting (slasher films, for example) while attributing works I do enjoy to some other genre, like "suspense" (Psycho, for instance). Straub's argument is a compelling one, if perhaps a touch extreme, and it echoes Armond White's criticism of the way Pixar is credited for transcending the low expectations of its genre. But as much as Straub's argument works from one angle, there is a problem with it: If something meets several of the criteria belonging to a certain genre and yet somehow surpasses the popular understanding of that genre, then it does. For example, if I tell you that for lunch we should just grab "fast-food," you're likely to think I mean something like McDonald's. You probably won't think I mean we should stop off at a local deli and buy a sandwich, even though that's food prepared quickly. Point being, if popularly the word "horror" now defines a narrow type of movie, then it does, and not necessarily just in my own mind.
So I think it's a worthwhile question: What constitutes "horror" in this day and age? Does blood alone make something horror? If so, would M*A*S*H apply? Do monstrous characters make something horror? If so, does No Country For Old Men apply? Are terrifying behavior and mental illness criteria? If so I'd like to suggest, only half jokingly, that Happy-Go-Lucky is horror. (It sure was for me.) But if I told you that we were going to go see a horror movie and then sat you down in front of one of the above films, you'd think I was out of my mind. I don't think this is an empty debate on semantics because, yes, maybe I'm unfairly narrowing what horror is by refusing to allow more complicated, deeper films into that bucket, but couldn't I just as easily argue that the horror bucket is meaninglessly large and uselessly indistinct if it could be used to describe, say, There Will Be Blood? We don't consider war movies part of the horror genre, even though those are often filled with violence and bloodshed, so why should we be so quick to call Trouble Every Day horror based on the same surface details (which isn't to say I'm blind to its classic horror allusions)?
For me, in modern cinematic terms, "horror" describes movies that have scaring the audience (eliciting genuine fright) as their primary intent. That's a narrow view, I admit (and it's sure to piss some people off), but it also creates a pretty big (but not too big) bucket. Once a film transcends that fright focus, yes, I tend to place it in some other genre, regardless of how gothic or bloody it might be. I'll probably call it drama or suspense, and that will feel more to the point for me. But all of that said, you've got me with Poe, because it's hard to argue that he didn't write horror, and yet his horror isn't anywhere close to my working definition of the word. And I suspect I'm not alone.
EH: I must admit, it is kind of hard to come up with a satisfying working definition of horror that encompasses the breadth of the genre without becoming so broad that No Country For Old Men could just as easily be tossed in the bucket. (There Will Be Blood is another story, though: maybe you disagree, but I think Daniel Plainview is something of a horror movie villain in the same way that Norma Desmond becomes Nosferatu-like in Sunset Boulevard. Neither film is horror, per se, but both at least make nods in that direction.) That said, I think it's obvious that defining horror as a film with the "primary intent" to scare people is too limiting, and also makes room for a great deal of ambiguity about filmmakers' intentions, always a tricky area. For instance, was creating audience fear really Stanley Kubrick's "primary intent" with The Shining, to name just one touchstone of the genre? What about Sam Raimi's Evil Dead sequels, which have always been more about making audiences laugh than about making them scream?
Maybe a less stringent definition of horror is in order, one that makes room for films that don't really intend to scare audiences so much as to explore the nature of fear, of what horrifies and disturbs us. What would a film like that be called, if not a horror film? Fear is central to horror, there's no doubt about that, but just because a lot of modern horror movies have taken a reductive approach to fear—I'm thinking especially of the prevalence of the mindless "jump scare"—doesn't mean that this is all there is to horror. Fear in the broader sense is at the heart of Trouble Every Day: not only the fear of being stalked and killed by a predator, but also the fear of hurting those we love, the fear of losing control, fears stemming from anxiety about sexuality and relationships. I think any definition of horror that excludes this kind of more nuanced exploration of fear and violence is essentially consigning the genre to a ghetto with no potential for producing lasting work.
JB: Kind of. I mean, yes, it's true that if we limited the horror genre to stuff closer to the "jump scare" model that it would eliminate films like Trouble Every Day from that classification, but that wouldn't rule out the possibility of making or appreciating great art within that more limited understanding of the genre. For example, I adore The Descent, and if that film isn't horror it could only be considered action-adventure. The Descent wants to gross you out and freak you out, and anyone looking for allegory or some other deeper meaning is wasting their time. That is horror to me, and I bloody love it. It's awesome. And when I call that "great horror," I'm not placing an asterisk on the film saying it's "less than" something else, I'm just describing the way it works. I'm succinctly articulating the impact of the movie and the way that it stimulates the audience.
That's why I don't want to call Trouble Every Day horror, because, no, fear isn't the heart of this film. I disagree with you on that. I do see Trouble Every Day as an allegory for addiction. I do see it as an examination of relationships and trust and lies. Again, as much as anything it reminds me of Eyes Wide Shut. I worry that by calling Trouble Every Day "horror," I'm limiting the film at least to being about fear by your broader definition, and yet I still think that would be too limiting, too far away from what I think are more central and more significant themes. To go back to There Will Be Blood, Daniel Plainview is something of a classic horror villain, yes. I agree with you there. But Paul Thomas Anderson's film isn't horror. We're meant to look deeper into Daniel Plainview, to try and understand his tortured mind, not to recoil from him in fear (at least not primarily). To approach the film as horror is to see less of what's there, not more. A movie like The Descent is bolstered by the horror label, because it defines its parameters for success and sharpens our focus. A movie like Trouble Every Day is reduced by the label even if the horror tag is placed on it without malice or bias, as you have done, because it misdirects our focus.
I respect your wish that, as with the gothic works of Poe, cinema horror should be able to stand for something more than blood and fear. The problem is that blood and fear are the elements that horror serves up that other genres don't. Jenna Jameson could learn to act like Meryl Streep and write like Charlie Kaufman, but if the primary intent of her next film is to arouse us with graphic sex, then it's porn. It's that simple. Thus, once a film becomes intent on doing something deeper than arousing the audience with graphic sex, whether that sex is real (Brown Bunny) or convincingly simulated (Lust, Caution), it's no longer porn. And so you can mourn that Poe's work would now be considered too complex to fit within the horror genre, but where would be the loss? We'd still have Poe. We'd still have horror (and people who love it for what it is). The loss would be if folks read The Tell-Tale Heart and reduced it to a creepy story about a heart that wouldn't stop beating or watch Trouble Every Day and think Coré is a sexy zombie.
EH: In some ways, you're right, and you make a good case for your position. Certainly, no matter how we classify Trouble Every Day or Poe, they're still great, so there's no loss there. The loss, in my opinion, is if horror is consigned more and more to a ghetto, deemed a genre without depth or complexity, then artists could be discouraged from engaging with horror in substantial ways. A work like Trouble Every Day exists because Claire Denis saw something in the horror genre; she wanted to engage with that tradition, with the conventions and ideas of the genre, bringing her own sensibility to it. I think that's the important thing: whether you agree with me or not that the final film is a horror film, Denis obviously set out to deal with horror on some level. I see your point that we should be happy with horror for what it is and not ask it to be other things, but at the same time I think genre should be more of an open concept than that. There needs to be room to stretch and experiment, to push at the boundaries of the genre without entirely shattering them. If our understanding of what horror is has changed since the days of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, then why can't it change again? I think Trouble Every Day is a great example of that: it expands and challenges the popular conception of horror while retaining enough of the genre's essential elements that it doesn't completely abandon its roots.
Of course, horror is not the only prism through which Trouble Every Day can be viewed and understood. One reading we haven't discussed yet that I want to at least throw out there is the feminist slant on it. Now don't worry, I'm not going to posit Coré as a man-eating feminist icon. The film's feminism asserts itself in more subtle ways, on the one hand playing off of male fears about female sexuality, and on the other dealing with the violence and antagonism implicit in sexuality. Coré may not be a "sexy zombie," but she is a sexy/scary archetype, an exaggerated vision of the kind of unapproachable woman who would be so simultaneously appealing and intimidating to men (like the eager young guy she lures into her room and devours). In that sense, Denis is tweaking male sexuality, giving a concrete form to male fears about female sexuality—also one of the central themes of Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut, which I think you were right to identify as a similar film. Denis is also dealing with voyeurism and predatory sexuality by frequently putting the audience in the position of Shane or another imagined observer, watching the maids dress and undress in the locker room, peeking around corners or lingering just behind a woman's neck, close enough to see the wispy hairs falling out of her ponytail.
As I said, I'm just putting that out there as one more way of reading the film, one more set of concerns that Denis is bringing to bear on this story. What do you think?
JB: Actually, I'm glad you brought that up, because one thing that occurred to me is what a significantly different message this film would seem to be sending if it didn't have male and female predators to offset one another. Without Coré ruthlessly devouring men, one can easily imagine the knee-jerk feminist outrage that this film might inspire (and not just in women, to be clear) if this addiction metaphor was seen only through Shane's growing inability to see women as anything more than figures in or victims of his sexual fantasies and urges. For example, that scene near the end when Shane attacks—and some would say rapes—the maid would be much more repugnant if we hadn't already seen Coré's three kills. (Just to clarify the "some would say rapes" part: That scene is confusing to me. The woman seems to consent to sex in the first place, but then she begins screaming as if in pain, as if Shane is biting at her neck, though there's no evidence of that when he pulls away. So I'm unclear as to when or if Shane truly forces himself on an unwilling partner prior to performing his gruesome version of cunnilingus. But I digress.) Likewise, the feminist revenge angle would be stronger if Shane wasn't there reducing women to objects of his perversion. In a sense, by presenting the female as both the conqueror and the conquered, those opposing readings canc