Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day aches with spiritual dread. Using the iconography of vampire films to illustrate religious fervor, Denis also shows reverence to the medium of film, particularly to the purity of silent movies. There’s almost no dialogue, and what little there is feels like it takes place within the half-heard context of a dream. An early scene on an airplane features Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) en route to Paris for his honeymoon, his comfort and security literally in midair. He politely excuses himself to the bathroom, stares blankly into the void, and remembers or envisions a murderess, or maybe a dying girl, covered in blood. There’s no sense of shock to the image, but there’s an unsettling fascination with the textures of wet skin and dried blood. The context isn’t so much violence as repressed indulgence. Josh Hartnett may have gone 40 Days and 40 Nights without twenty-something sex or self-gratification, but Gallo’s angst-ridden version of Lent is the perilous and hellish adult version.
Denis’ bold poetic stance amid the arid sexual frustrations of Beau Travail and the urban alienation of I Can’t Sleep gain further resonance within the loaded, oft-maligned context of the horror film. She uses and comments on the genre with playful decadence, having a blissfully ignorant American couple enacting silly vampire role-playing as they chase each other and embrace among the gargoyle statues of a cathedral tower. That’s the Scream response to horror that was rampant throughout the 1990s—a tacky postmodern riff—but Denis harkens back to classic Universal horror titles, and further still to Vampyr and Nosferatu. One has to wonder, though, if her romancing newlyweds are preserving or bastardizing screen history. Maybe both.
The grisly denouement, graphic in its sexual bloodletting, takes a deeper plunge. A leather-clad male intruder achieves release by committing the taboo act of cannibalism, chewing away at human flesh. Though he tries to find a cure for nearly the entire film, the young protagonist of Trouble Every Day discovers his only release will come not through repentance but through sick hedonism. Catholic guilt is cast away, and male sexual hysteria gets unleashed as both rape fantasy and savage carnality. Cannibal lust is equated with giving in to primal impulses, a necessary act for our hungry vampire-marauder to undergo before he can return to his rational life of the marriage, the home, the successful job, and the time-honored American dream that seems to be sweeping over Denis’ beloved Parisian culture.
Sporting a neatly trimmed moustache and combed-back hair, Gallo redirects his bad boy persona, externalized so forcefully as Billy Brown in Buffalo 66 and as Bud Clay in The Brown Bunny. Denis domesticates this wild beast of an actor and keeps him docile; Gallo’s thinly veiled maverick energy remains quietly predatory as he and his wife (played by the meek and pretty Tricia Vessey) follow a cute, sallow maid (Florence Loiret-Caille) down a labyrinthine hotel corridor. Gallo’s hollow features and striking eyes, so prominent in the actor’s fashion advertisements and performance art, are properly entombed within Denis’ minimalist framework. She lingers on that face as Shane sits on the edge of a bed or grimly stares himself down in that airplane mirror. Even sitting still, he projects a dangerous allure under his scrubbed surface.
Ostensibly a medical researcher for a leading pharmaceutical company, Shane’s honeymoon vacation is an elaborate ruse for him to track down the scientist responsible for his deviant fantasies. The subject of a covert test lab experiment gone wrong, an attempt to increase his sexual drive has transformed Shane into a ghoul hungry for devouring human flesh during intercourse. Needless to say, he’s terrified of consummating his marriage. Standing over his nubile wife while she soaks in a bathtub, he whispers, “Are you afraid?” It’s a vulnerable moment for him—he’s fixated on and frightened by the mysteries of her naked flesh. When he violently masturbates later, his wife pounding on the door behind him, it’s pure emasculated terror.
No answers are found with Shane’s former colleague Léo Semeneau (Alex Descas), the man who created the drug that aroused his gory, fetishistic dreams. In fact, Léo’s own wife Coré (Béatrice Dalle, whose skeleton face and protruding teeth are used to chilling effect) is so far gone she’s kept under lock and key in their rickety old house. She’s first seen roving among modern society, luring truck drivers to their bloody deaths. If Gallo is Trouble Every Day’s de-facto Dracula, the stoic and remote Descas is an impassive Dr. Frankenstein whose experiments have run amok. Like Mary Shelley’s fictional creator, Léo is a self-made God without answers. That’s not much of a stretch for a deeply religious film that questions religiosity, or rejects it. Shane and Coré, left alone, can only find respite by delving into the forbidden.
Smearing the blood of interlopers on her walls, Coré paces back and forth in front of her fingerpainted designs of tombstones and crosses. When Shane finally arrives at the secret old house at the end of his search, as he must, the first thing Coré does is ritualistically light a match and, in what a lesser film might use as its climactic battle, ignite a fire. Instead of ending with the destruction of the haunted laboratory, Denis builds towards a far more audacious and supremely grotesque finale set in the shadows of a hotel basement. It is grimly foreshadowed by an earlier scene where a foreign doctor attempts to convince Dr. Semeneau that he shouldn’t involve himself in the unknown. “It’s not kosher,” he warns. Munching on the most private feminine spaces, the film makes good on its promise to have Shane eat his way through those fears.
Trouble Every Day is cinematically astonishing in ways that shame most films. It’s a reminder of why we call them motion pictures: stories told through vivid, expressionistic images. By transposing her aesthetic to the horror genre, Denis has a built-in framework that may appeal to those who turned a blind eye to the poetic, experimental flourishes of Beau Travail. One would hope, anyway. But at the time of the film’s American release, audiences were more interested in flocking to the prolonged music video Queen of the Damned.
Admittedly, it’s an art film that will baffle a certain percentage of the horror crowd, and a horror film that will turn off the art crowd. Could be audiences at the film’s Cannes premiere, repulsed by what they saw before them, thought it was too much to take in all at once. Yet the idea of what’s represented is more disturbing than anything Denis actually shows. She and her longtime collaborator Agnès Godard photograph acts of rapacious bloodlust in ways that inspire contemplation, not revulsion. Those willing to place themselves into Denis’ philosophical rhythms will find that what they’re watching is representative of something deeper, as metaphors for our primal fears. In her final scene, Denis lingers on a single drop of blood trickling down a translucent shower curtain. The stains of guilt aren’t so easily washed away. Neither is the disconcerting resonance of Trouble Every Day.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.