[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 (Béatrice 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-Caille) 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."