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 cancel one another out. We can’t know for sure, but perhaps that was a purposeful choice. Perhaps Denis is making it clear that we should ignore the stereotypical gender roles that we inevitably assign to sexual power struggles. Perhaps she’s saying we should see the predatory sex here as a comment on the monstrousness of the characters rather than a comment on their female and male sexuality.
Furthermore, any feminist reading is on slippery ground. Yes, Coré is a sexy archetype, an exaggeration of the unapproachable woman who is both appealing and intimidating to men. But while Coré is a sexual predator, thus taking on the role usually assigned to men, she is also—much more than Shane—reduced to her sexual urges. Her husband locks her in her room, for example, because if he doesn’t Coré is going to go in search of sex; she can’t control herself. Shane at least has some kind of willpower, and at his stage of the addiction cycle his actions seem more voluntary, as if his sexual urges are a vice or a fetish that he can control. Coré has devolved far beyond that point. She must feed on men, which involves having sex with men. When she’s not attacking men, she wants to die. There’s no in-between for Coré. So, just as easily as you could argue that Coré is the strong female devouring men, you could argue that she is exactly what feminists hate: a woman reduced to her sexual desires who cannot control herself. This is all before we consider Shane’s wife, who could be seen as a woman who resigns herself to a loveless, sexless marriage and a cheating husband. She’s hardly an icon for female strength and individuality.
EH: All good points. I pretty much agree with everything you say. The ambivalence in the presentation of Coré and the contrast with Shane prevents the film from being read as anything like a feminist tract, even though Denis clearly intends us to think about these issues of sexuality, archetypes and predation. It goes back to the film’s essential ambiguity, its refusal to settle on any one interpretation, any one “message.” You suggested earlier that Denis “doesn’t moralize,” and that’s why I would never say that any one reading dominates; she wants us to reach our own conclusions. This ambiguity makes the film something of a Rorschach blot: Is it a horror film or not? Is it a commentary on gender roles? Is it about addiction? Sexual desire? Troubled relationships? The role of the brain in defining consciousness? All of the above? To some extent, anyone can see what they want in a film like this, and that’s the beauty of it.
Of course, this is not to suggest that Denis offers up no ideas of her own, or that the film is utterly vague or aimless. In fact, Denis’ style is nothing if not precise, and though she never pins the film down to any one interpretation, there’s little doubt about the emotional effects she wants to elicit in her audience. She has a real control of mood that extends also to the perfect choice of the soundtrack by great British band Tindersticks, who had previously scored Nénette and Boni and have gone on to score Denis’ recent 35 Rhums as well. Their distinctive jazzy, mournful sound—particularly on the title song—is a perfect fit for Denis’ atmospheric visuals. Their contributions here remind me of Neil Young’s spacious guitar and organ solos for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, atmospherically filling in some white space with gauzy smears of sound, buttressing the overall mood of the piece. Of course, Denis’ recurring use of Tindersticks’ music is consistent with her loyalty to other members of her crew, notably her cinematographer Agnès Godard and her frequent editor Nelly Quettier, whose presence here reinforces this film’s continuity with her other work.
I opened this piece by saying that I had previously thought of Trouble Every Day as characterized primarily by its startling violence, which is perhaps understandable: there’s no doubt that the film possesses unforgettable images like Coré nibbling at the loose, bloody skin on a victim’s face, her gritted teeth stained red. Now that I’ve revisited the film, however, I find that I can more easily think of it in relation to Denis’ career as a whole, as one more elegiac and enigmatic piece of visual poetry, defined by its unusual quietness and its even tempo. Yes, it’s a film about a sensational subject—as you said at the outset, the word “cannibalism” tends to leap out at one—but it’s not treated sensationally. Instead, Trouble Every Day is patient and introspective, probing into the nuanced emotions and ideas at the heart of this sanguine story.
JB: I presume you use sanguine in reference to the blood, and not as a suggestion of cheerful optimism. If so, I agree. But you say it best above when you compare it to a Rorschach blot. I usually cringe at that comparison, because it often manages to give the artist too much credit, as if as a rule abstraction and genius rise and fall together on parallel rails, but here it’s true. This is going to seem like a crazy leap, but at times during the film I found myself recalling a scene in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine when a character is about to get swallowed up by the sun and Cliff Curtis’ character breathlessly barks in to the radio: “What do you see?! What do you see!?” I think Denis is working with a plan in Trouble Every Day, but she’s also leading us to these moments where we have to stare into the light and wrestle with the undefined, both mentally and emotionally. Denis wants to provoke us, but I get the sense that she’s utterly unconcerned with prescribing our reactions so long as we’ve engaged with the material. That’s rare.
Trouble Every Day is one of those films that is fun to discover and yet richer to know. In other words, as interesting as it is to try to grapple with the movie as it unfolds, it takes getting to the end and seeing the complete view to really understand what you saw in the first place—and I don’t mean in some comparatively shallow M. Night Shyamalan kind of way. Lynch makes films like that. The Coens make films like that. Per everything we’ve talked about here, I’m not sure how I’d even begin to encapsulate the film to someone who’d never seen it. It is, for me, a portrait of addiction, but it’s not just that. It is, of course, a movie about cannibals, and yet as incomplete as any encapsulation would be without that word, that’s the word that’s most misleading. It is bloody and disturbing but, for me, not horror. Trouble Every Day defies any neat categorization. That alone doesn’t make it great, but it’s part of the allure. It would be easy now to fall back on that old cliché that “it’s not for everyone,” but if Trouble Every Day isn’t for everyone, who is it for? If it wasn’t a struggle to watch, it wouldn’t be so interesting to behold.
Jason Bellamy ruminates on cinema at The Cooler.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.