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.”
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 Chloë 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 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.
Review: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets Is an Elegiac Mosaic of Disillusionment
It’s in certain characters’ trajectories that the Ross brothers locate the tragic soul of the bar.3.5
In a 1946 essay for London’s Evening Standard, George Orwell wrote: “And if anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it.” In other words, the British author was on the lookout for the ideal watering hole, which he argues requires a combination of these specific offerings as well as more ineffable qualities. But the article’s thrust isn’t so simple, as Orwell spends the first three-quarters of it describing in detail a bar that doesn’t exist, referred to by the fictitious moniker of “The Moon Under Water.” You might think that you’re reading a rare lifestyle report from your favorite anti-totalitarian author, only to suddenly be made aware of your victimhood in a little literary sleight of hand.
Orwell’s playful essay provides the inspiration for Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, a quasi-real-time portrait of what might be seen as an ideal dive bar by today’s standards, though filmmaker brothers Bill and Turner Ross eschew Orwell’s rug-pulling. Here, we’re never let in on the fact that the Roaring 20s, the Las Vegas haunt that serves as the film’s setting, is actually located in the Rosses’ hometown of New Orleans, or that its denizens are actually a motley crew of Louisiana drinkers (one looks like Elliott Gould, another like Seymour Cassel) that the filmmakers recruited and primed for their roles. This edifice of fakery is critical to the film’s meaning. As Orwell opined for a more perfect world where such a social space could exist, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets fabricates its own rosy vision of social unity, drunkenly commiseration, and aesthetic perfection, if only to deliberately undercut this idealism through the staging of its narrative around the bar’s final night and the election of Donald Trump.
The Roaring 20s may not be everyone’s idea of perfection. After an Altmanesque credit sequence establishing the bar’s exterior in zooming telephoto shots, the audience’s first glimpse at the interior finds custodian-cum-freeloader Michael Martin being broken from his early-afternoon slumber by the arriving bartenders and helped promptly to a swig of whiskey, and events from this point forward tap into a similar reservoir of pity and humor. Where the beauty emerges is in the intimacy and familiarity with which the patrons are able to relate to one another as more and more alcohol is consumed. For much of the film, egos, tempers, and prejudices fall away as more and more regulars pile into the bar, increasingly constituting a diverse cross section of what appear to be outer Vegas wanderers and failures.
Limiting views of the surrounding city to brief, bleary interludes shot on an un-color-calibrated Panasonic DVX100b, the Ross brothers center the action squarely around the bar, lending everything a brownish pink patina that suggests the view through a bottle of Fireball and draping every hangable surface with off-season Christmas lights. Taken as part of a dialogue with such gems from the canon of booze-soaked cinema as Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Eagle Pennell’s Last Night at the Alamo, this auburn glow distinguishes Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets as more texturally expressive than photographically verisimilar—a film that approximates a night of inebriation rather than merely memorializing it.
Having used two cameras over the course of their 18-hour shoot, the Rosses are able to rely on montage editing to foster a sense of omniscience without losing the feeling of temporal continuity. The result is a film whose attention jumps sporadically to different bits of conversation and activity just as the beer-saturated brain of your average pub-dweller might. Part of this seamless integration of perspectives has to do with the film’s dynamic and precise use of music, which blends non-diegetic Rhodes-piano noodlings from composer Casey Wayne McAllister with popular songs heard within the bar both on the jukebox and in impromptu sing-alongs. Unconcerned with airs of documentary objectivity, the Ross brothers allow themselves to essentially play disc jockeys, and within this framework many of their choices for background needle drops land with a certain poetic gravitas, complementing, contradicting, or in some cases even guiding the emotional temperature of the room.
Kenny Rogers’s “The Gambler” is heard twice, first played by a bartender on an acoustic guitar to get the early evening energy going and later on the jukebox when much of that energy has dissipated, while Jhené Aiko’s desolate breakup ballad “Comfort Inn Ending” provides contrapuntal accompaniment to the evening’s one flare-up of macho tempers. Most affecting is when A$AP Rocky’s “Fuckin’ Problems” underscores a shot of an embittered but tender war vet, Bruce Hadnot, glowering at the end of the bar—a lengthily held beat that will be relatable to anyone who’s ever found introspection in the midst of pummeling noise. Each example hints at the melancholy direction that the film ultimately takes, and like any DJ worth their salt, the Rosses manage the transition from euphoria to pathos gradually and imperceptibly.
While all who enter the Roaring 20s achieve some kind of emotional arc before departing thanks to the filmmakers’ democratic distribution of their attentions, there are a few who emerge as main characters, and it’s in their trajectories that Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets locates the tragic soul of the bar. Michael is one of them. Beginning the day as a freewheeling conversationalist, ripping drinks and catching up with whoever rolls through, he spends the dwindling hours of the night in a dazed stupor on a corner sofa, pathetically asserting to a fellow bar patron that “there is nothing more boring than someone who used to do stuff and just sits in a bar.” In a few instances, the Ross brothers cede the floor to the bar’s security cameras, whose detachment and “objectivity” eschew the warmth of the filmmakers’ ground-level cameras, rendering the bar as little more than a physical space. Seen from this cold, inhuman eye, Michael registers as lonely, beaten-down, and insignificant.
Similarly positioned on the margins of the sociable space created by the Roaring 20s, and often identified by its more imposing and strange attractions (such as the Stratosphere and Pyramid casinos), Las Vegas plays a role analogous to the bar’s security cameras. As seen through a motion-blurred, sepia-toned camera, the city represents a reality of false hopes that’s failed the film’s humble pleasure seekers—whether in the form of dead-end jobs that have led them away from their passions or in a military industrial complex that treats its servants as interchangeable. At one point, Bruce brings up Trump on the occasion of his recent election, confidently proffering grave predictions for his presidency. The subject doesn’t get touched again, but it’s a subtext for the whole film—not the Trump presidency per se, but the mere fact of pessimism in the face of leadership. Like Orwell’s “The Moon Under Water,” the Roaring 20s seen in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets doesn’t really exist. Even if it did, no one would save it, which makes the desperation with which its denizens hang on to it all the more touching.
Director: Bill Ross IV, Turner Ross Distributor: Utopia Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Relic Is a Lushly Metaphoric Vision of a Splintered Family
The film heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.2.5
Kay (Emily Mortimer) and her daughter, Sam (Bella Heathcote), don’t say much on the drive to Grandma Edna’s (Robyn Nevin) house. The old woman is missing, and when Sam crawls through the doggy door into the home, she looks around with concern, absorbed until Kay knocks impatiently at the door to be let in. Still no words. The women of Relic aren’t exactly close, as evidenced by the palpable coldness between Kay and Sam as they look through this cluttered abode. Edna’s forgetfulness having grown exhausting, Kay tells a cop that she hasn’t spoken to her eightysomething mother in weeks. And the guilt is written on Kay’s face, even in the distant shot that frames her within the walls of the police station.
Though Relic is her debut feature, Natalie Erika James demonstrates a confident grasp of tone and imagery throughout the film. She and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff strikingly conjure an ominous stillness, particularly in the scenes set inside Edna’s increasingly unfamiliar home, where the characters appear as if they’re being suffocated by the walls, railing, low ceilings, and doorways. Relic fixates on rotting wood, the monolithic scope of the Australian woods, and the colors on Edna’s front door’s stained-glass window that meld, eventually, into a single dark spill, as though the house is infected by the old cabin that haunts Kay’s dreams.
Edna soon reappears, unable to explain where she’s been and complicating an already distant family dynamic. The interactions between the three women are marked by an exhaustion that’s clearly informed by past experience—a feeling that Edna’s disappearance was almost expected. But not even James’s command behind the camera can quite elevate just how hard Relic falls into the shorthand of too many horror movies with old people at their center: the unthinking self-harm, the wandering about in the night, the pissing of oneself.
The film remains restrained almost to a fault, revealing little about its characters and their shared histories. Though some of this vagueness could be attributed to Relic’s central metaphor about dementia, the general lack of specificity only grows more apparent in the face of the film’s oldsploitation standbys, leaving us with precious little character to latch onto.
But such familiar elements belie Relic’s truly inventive climax, an abrupt shift into a visceral nightmare that tears apart notions of body and space and then sews them back together in a new, ghastly form. James resists bringing the film’s subtext to the forefront, in the process imbuing her enigmatic images with a lasting power, turning them into ciphers of broader ideas like abandonment, responsibility, and resentment as they relate to the withering human figure. Never relenting with its atmosphere of suffocating decay, the final stretch of Relic, if nothing else, heralds the arrival a bold and formidable voice in horror cinema.
Cast: Emily Mortimer, Robyn Nevin, Bella Heathcote Director: Natalie Erika James Screenwriter: Natalie Erika James, Christian White Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 89 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Love Before the Virus: Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s Newly Restored Passing Strangers
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love.
One of the many pleasures to be had in watching Arthur J. Bressan Jr.’s newly restored Passing Strangers derives from its status as a historical document, or a piece of queer ethnography. The 1974 film allows us to see but also feel what life was like for gay men during what some have called the golden age of unbridled sex before the AIDS epidemic. Bressan Jr.’s portrait of this history is simultaneously attuned to its sartorial, mediatic, erotic, and affective dimensions, which may come as a surprise to those unaccustomed to explicit sexual imagery being paired with social commentary. Pornography and poetry aren’t counterparts here. Rather, they’re bedfellows, one the logical continuation of the other. Money shots, for instance, aren’t accompanied by moaning or groaning, but by the sounds of a violin.
The film’s characters are simultaneously horny and melancholic. They seem to want plenty of sex but also love. They devote so much of their lives to picking up strangers for sex, briefly and by the dozens, but not without secretly wishing that one of them might eventually stay. In this they may not differ much from their contemporary cruising heirs, though they do in their approach. It turns out that asking for a pen pal’s photo before a meetup in 1974 was considered creepy, and using Walt Whitman’s poetry as part of a sex ad was quite fruitful.
That’s exactly what 28-year-old Tom (Robert Carnagey), a bath-house habitué and telephone company worker living in San Francisco, does in the hopes of attracting something long term. The literal poetics of cruising speaks to 18-year-old Robert (Robert Adams), who responds to Tom’s newspaper ad right way. They meet in person and begin a love affair that could only be described as bucolic, including making love in fields of grass, on top of a picnic blanket, to the sound of waves and piano notes, and riding their bikes around town, much like the sero-discordant love birds of Paris 05:59: Théo & Hugo do after partaking in a gangbang. In retrospect, promiscuity gains the tinge of an obsessive auditioning of “the one,” who, in Bressan Jr.’s sensual fairy tale, is bound to come along and save us from ourselves.
Passing Strangers, which originally screened at adult cinemas and gay film festivals, recalls Francis Savel’s 1980 porno Equation to an Unknown in how smut and romance are so intimately bound in the forms of queer intimacy that the film depicts. This may also be due to the dearth of gay cinematic representation at the time—of gay men perhaps needing to dream of prince charming and of bareback anal sex in the same movie session, satisfying the itch for love and for filth in one fell swoop. But while Equation to an Unknown is completely wrapped up in a fantasy glow, there’s something more realistic, or pragmatic, about Passing Strangers.
Tom’s voiceover narration, which takes the shape of disaffected epistolary exchanges with his newfound beloved, orients us through the action. Motivations are explained. At times, however, Bressan Jr. indulges in experimental detours. These are precisely the most beautiful, and atemporal, sequences in the film—scenes where sex is juxtaposed with the sound of a construction site or the buzzing of a pesky mosquito, or one where an audience of orgy participants give a round of applause after somebody ejaculates. And the film’s surrendering to moments of inexplicable poesis reaches its apex in a shot of a boy in clown makeup holding his mouth agape. It’s an exquisitely brief shot, indelible in its strangeness.
Review: Tom Hanks Stubbornly Steers Greyhound into Sentimental Waters
With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play.1.5
With his almost supernatural likeability, impeccable reputation, and penchant for appearing in films rooted in American history, Tom Hanks has become a national father figure. The actor’s ongoing project, particularly urgent as we seek to redefine our relationship with our history and iconography, is to remind us of when the United States actually rose to the occasion. Unsurprisingly, this project often centers on World War II, one of the least controversial pinnacles of American collaboration on the world stage.
Continuing this tradition, Aaron Schneider’s Greyhound concerns the efforts to provide Britain with troops and supplies via Allied naval convoys on the Atlantic, which German U-boat “wolf packs” stalk and sink, attempting to break a Western blockade. Adapted by Hanks from C.S. Forester’s novel The Good Shephard, the film is a celebration of duty and competency that’s so quaint it’s almost abstract, as it arrives at a time of chaos, selfish and blinkered American governing, and a growing bad faith in our notion of our own legacy.
Set over a few days in 1942, the film dramatizes a fictionalized skirmish in the real-life, years-long Battle of the Atlantic. The American destroyer Greyhound, leader of a convoy that includes Canadian and British vessels, is commanded by Ernest Krause (Hanks), an aging naval officer with no experience in battle. Text at the start of the film explains that there’s a portion of the Atlantic that’s out of the range of air protection, called the Black Pit, in which convoys are especially vulnerable to the wolf packs. For 50 hours, Krause and his crew will be tested and severely endangered as they seek to cross this treacherous stretch of the sea.
This skeletal scenario has potential as a visceral thriller and as a celebration of Allied ingenuity and daring. Unfortunately, Hanks’s script never adds any meat to the skeleton. One can see Hanks’s passion for history in the loving details—in the references to depth charge supply, to windshield wipers freezing up, to the specific spatial relationships that are established (more through text than choreography) via the various vessels in this convoy. What Hanks loses is any sense of human dimension. In The Good Shephard, Krause is frazzled and insecure about leading men who’re all more experienced in battle than himself. By contrast, Krause’s inexperience is only mentioned in Greyhound as a testament to his remarkable, readymade leadership. The film’s version of Krause is stolid, undeterred, unshakably decent ol’ Tom Hanks, national sweetheart. As such, Greyhound suffers from the retrospective sense of inevitability that often mars simplified WWII films.
Greyhound’s version of Krause lacks the tormented grace of Hanks’s remarkable performance in Clint Eastwood’s Sully. This Krause also lacks the palpable bitterness of Hanks’s character in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, as well as the slyness that the actor brought to both Spielberg’s Catch Me if You Can and Bridge of Spies. In Greyhound, Hanks falls prey to the sentimentality for which his detractors have often unfairly maligned him, fetishizing Krause’s selflessness in a manner that scans as ironically vain. As a screenwriter, Hanks throws in several writerly “bits” to show how wonderful Krause is, such as his ongoing refusal to eat during the Greyhound’s war with U-boats. (A three-day battle on an empty stomach seems like a bad idea.) Meanwhile, the crew is reduced to anonymous faces who are tasked with spouting jargon, and they are, of course, unquestionably worshipful of their commander, as are the voices that are heard from the other vessels in the convoy.
Schneider lends this pabulum a few eerie visual touches, as in the slinky speed of the German torpedoes as they barely miss the Greyhound, but the film is largely devoid of poetry. The stand-offs between the vessels are competently staged, but after a while you may suspect that if you’ve seen one torpedo or depth charge detonation you’ve seen them all. With no vividly drawn humans on display, the action feels like rootless war play. In short, Greyhound takes a fascinating bit of WWII history and turns it into a blockbuster version of bathtub war.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Karl Glusman, Stephen Graham, Elisabeth Shue, Tom Brittney, Devin Druid, Rob Morgan, Lee Norris, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Maximilian Osinski, Matthew Zuk, Michael Benz Director: Aaron Schneider Screenwriter: Tom Hanks Distributor: Apple TV+ Running Time: 91 min Rating: 2020 Year: PG-13
Review: The Beach House’s Moodiness Is Dissipated by Shaky Characterization
The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action.2
Michael Crichton’s 1969 novel The Andromeda Strain, in which a satellite crashes to Earth with an alien virus on board, is an expression of Space Age anxieties, about how the zeal to reach the stars could have unintended and dangerous consequences. In Jeffrey A. Brown’s The Beach House, something lethal instead rises from the depths of the ocean, a kind of “alien” invasion coming up from below rather than down from the cosmos, better reflecting the environmental anxieties of our present day. It still feels like comeuppance for human hubris, but this time in the form of intraterrestrial, not extraterrestrial, revenge.
The potentially extinction-level event is played on a chamber scale as domestic drama. Emily (Liana Liberato) and Randall (Noah Le Gros) are college sweethearts who go to his family’s beach house during the off-season, in a seemingly abandoned town, to work on their personal problems. They’re unexpectedly joined there by Mitch (Jake Weber) and Jane (Maryann Nagel), old friends of Randall’s father, and the four agree to have dinner together. It’s then that Emily, an aspiring astrobiologist, conveniently provides some context for what’s about to happen, as she makes reverential conversation at the table about the mysterious depths of the sea and the sometimes extreme conditions in which new life can be created and thrive.
That night, while tripping balls on edibles, the couples look out and marvel at the sparkling, purple-tinged landscape outside their beach house. (The smell is less gloriously described as being like that of sewage and rotten eggs.) It’s not a hallucination, though, because whatever ocean-formed particulate is turning the night sky into a psychedelic dreamscape and the air cloudy is also making the characters sick. There’s some interesting and serendipitous overlap between the film’s central horror and our present Covid-19 crisis, as the malady seems to be airborne, affecting the lungs and making the characters cough. It also affects older people more quickly than the young, with the milder symptoms including exhaustion.
Brown emphasizes the oddness of nature with an eye for detail focused in close-up on, say, the eerie gooeyness of oysters, and by vivifying the film’s settings with bold colors: On the second night, the air glows mustard and red, recalling recent California wildfires. The ubiquitous haze also evokes John Carpenter’s The Fog and Frank Darabont’s The Mist, but other genre influences are also on display, from Cronenbergian body horror, as in the gory removal of a skin-burrowing worm, to zombie flicks, given the slowness of the hideously infected victims.
There’s not a lot of exposition about the illness, as Brown’s screenplay is primarily focused on Randall and Emily’s fight to survive the mysterious onslaught. But you probably won’t care if they do. The character drama becomes afterthought as it’s superseded by action. The Beach House had convincingly argued that these two people shouldn’t be together, that their relationship has long passed its prime. He mocks her plans for advanced study and calls her life goals bullshit, even though he has none himself; he suggests that they move into the beach house, to live in a state of permanent vacation, while he tries to figure out what life means. When she’s high and getting sick and asking him for help, he dismisses her, lest it harsh his mellow. But instead of engineering his downfall, Midsommar-style, Emily does everything she can in the last third to help save him. It feels sudden, unearned, and unconvincing—enough to make you root for the monsters from the ocean floor.
Cast: Liana Liberato, Noah Le Gros, Maryann Nagel, Jake Weber Director: Jeffrey A. Brown Screenwriter: Jeffrey A. Brown Distributor: Shudder Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: The Old Guard Is a Would-Be Franchise Starter with No New Moves
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action, the film is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts.2
Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard is a modestly successful attempt to build a new fountain of franchise content out of a comic series with nearly limitless potential for spin-offs. The story kicks into motion with a team of four mercenaries with unique powers and an ancient bond setting off to rescue some kidnapped girls in South Sudan. Charlize Theron brings her customarily steely intensity to the role of the group’s cynical, burnt-out leader, Andy, who isn’t crazy about the idea since she doesn’t trust Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the ex-C.I.A. agent who hired them. Given how long it turns out that Andy has been doing this sort of thing, you would imagine that her comrades would listen.
The mission turns out to be a set-up, and the would-be rescuers are wiped out in a barrage of bullets. Except not, because Andy and her team are pretty much unkillable. So as their enemies are slapping each other on the back and conveniently looking the other way, the mercenaries haul themselves to their feet, bodies healing almost instantaneously, bullets popping out of closing wounds. Payback is swift but interesting, because for reasons likely having to do with their being many centuries old—the youngest, Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), fought for Napoleon—the four quasi-immortals like to use swords in addition to automatic weaponry.
Written with glints of pulpy panache by Greg Rucka, the comic’s originator, The Old Guard sets up a high-potential premise and proceeds to do not very much with it. Rucka’s conceit is that this tiny group are among the very few people on Earth to have been born essentially immortal. This can be a good thing, but it can also prove problematic, as it means that they watch everybody they know age and die—a trope that was already somewhat worn by the time Anne Rice used it throughout her novels about ever-suffering vampires.
The plot of the film does relatively little after the showdown in South Sudan besides introduce a new member of the mercenary team, Nile (KiKi Layne), establish that Andy is tiring of the wandering warrior life, and show the group plotting revenge on Copley only to have that turn into a rescue mission that conveniently brings them all back together again. As part of the run-up to that mission, new recruit Nile, a Marine who goes AWOL from Afghanistan with Andy after her fellow soldiers see her seemingly fatal knife wound magically heal and treat her as some kind of witch, is introduced to life as a nearly invincible eternal warrior.
That rescue plot is simple to the point of being rote. Billionaire Big Pharma bro Merrick (Harry Melling), seemingly made up of equal parts Lex Luthor and Martin Shkreli, kidnaps two of Andy’s team in the hope of harvesting their DNA for blockbuster anti-aging drugs. Unfortunately for the film, that takes two of its most personable characters temporarily out of action. Nicky (Luca Marinelli) and Joe (Marwan Kenzari) had their meet-cute while fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades and have been wildly in love ever since. After the two are captured and mocked by Merrick’s homophobic gunsels, Joe delivers a pocket soliloquy on his poetic yearning: “His kiss still thrills me after a millennium.” The moment’s romantic burn is more poignant by being clipped to its bare-minimal length and presented with the casual confidence one would expect from a man old enough to remember Pope Urban II.
In other ways, however, The Old Guard fails to explore the effects of living such lengthy lives. Asked by Nile whether they are “good guys or bad guys,” Booker answers that “it depends on the century.” While Rucka’s hard-boiled lines like that can help energize the narrative, it can also suggest a certain flippancy. When the film does deal with crushing weight of historical memory, it focuses primarily on Andy, who’s been around so long that her name is shortened from Andromache the Scythian (suggesting she was once the Amazon warrior queen who fought in the battle of Troy). Except for a brief flashback illustrating the centuries-long escapades of Andy and Quynh (Veronica Ngo) fighting for vaguely defined positive principles (one involved rescuing women accused of witchcraft), we don’t see much of their past. Similarly, except for Andy’s increasing cynicism about the positive impact of their roaming the Earth like do-gooder ronin, they seem to exist largely in the present.
That present is largely taken up with combat, particularly as Booker, Andy, and Nile gear up to rescue Nicky and Joe. Prince-Bythewood handles these scenes with a degree of John Wick-esque flair: Why just shoot a Big Pharma hired gun once when you can shoot him, flip him over, and then stab and shoot him again for good measure? However tight, though, the action scenes’ staging is unremarkable, with the exception of one climactic moment that’s so well-choreographed from an emotional standpoint that the impossibility of a multiplex crowd hooting and clapping in response makes the film feel stifled by being limited to streaming.
Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts. That will likely not stop further iterations from finding ways to plug these characters and their like into any historical moment that has room in it for high-minded mercenaries with marketable skills and a few centuries to kill.
Cast: Charlize Theron, Matthias Schoenaerts, KiKi Layne, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harry Melling, Veronica Ngo Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood Screenwriter: Greg Rucka Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 118 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: We Are Little Zombies Is a Fun, Wildly Stylized Portrait of Grief
The film is a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries.3
Makoto Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies follows the exploits of a group of tweens who meet at the funeral home where their deceased parents are being cremated. But, surprisingly, Hitari (Keita Ninomiya), Takemura (Mondo Okumura), Ishi (Satoshi Mizuno), and Ikiko (Satoshi Mizuno) are united less by sorrow and more by cool indifference, as they see their parents’ deaths as yet another tragedy in what they collectively agree is pretty much a “shit life.” As the socially awkward Hitari claims matter-of-factly in voiceover, “Babies cry to signal they need help. Since no one can help me, there’s no point in crying.”
Through a series of extended flashbacks, Nagahisa relates the kids’ troubled lives, never stooping to pitying or sentimentalizing them or their utter dismay with the adult world. The new friends’ deeply internalized grief and hopelessness are filtered wildly through a hyperreal aesthetic lens that’s indebted to all things pop, from psychedelia to role-playing games. It’s Nagashisa’s vibrant means of expressing the disconnect between the kids’ troubled lives and their emotionless reactions to the various tragedies that have befallen them.
With its chiptunes-laden soundtrack and chapter-like form, which mimics the levels of a video game, We Are Little Zombies will draw understandable comparisons to Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. But it’s Nagisa Oshima’s Three Resurrected Drunkards that offers a more precise analogue to this film’s provocative rhyming of stylistic zaniness and extreme youthful alienation. Oshima’s anarchically playful farce stars the real-life members of the Folk Crusaders as a disaffected group of rebellious musicians, and when the kids of We Are Little Zombies decide to form a band to express themselves, they even perform a bossa nova version of the Folk Crusaders’s theme song for the 1968 film. This and the many other cultural touchstones in We Are Little Zombies are seamlessly weaved by Nagahisa into a kaleidoscopic portrait of a world where emotions are accessed and revealed primarily through digital intermediaries, be they social media or a dizzying glut of pop-cultural creations.
Nagahisa’s aesthetic mirrors his main characters’ disconnect from reality, incorporating everything from stop-motion animation to pixelated scenes and overhead shots that replicate the stylings of 8-bit RPGs. At one point in We Are Little Zombies, an unsettling talk show appearance brings to mind what it would be like to have a bad acid trip on the set of an old MTV news program. Nagahisa accepts that the kids’ over-engagement with screen-based technology is inextricably embedded in their experience of reality and ultimately celebrates the sense of camaraderie and belonging that the foursome finds in pop artifacts and detritus. This is particularly evident once their band, the Little Zombies of the film’s title, starts to explore their antipathy toward and frustrations with a seemingly indifferent world.
The Little Zombies wield the same charming punk spirit as the film, and once instant fame reveals its viciously sharp teeth, Nagahisa doesn’t hold back from peering into the nihilistic abyss that stands before the kids. As in Three Resurrected Drunkards, We Are Little Zombies’s most despairing notes are couched in the distinctive language of pop culture. Hitari’s attempts to grab essential items before running away from the home of a relative (Eriko Hatsune) are staged as a video game mission. The band’s hit song—titled, of course, “We Are Little Zombies”—is an infectious, delightfully melodic banger all about their dispassionate existence. There’s even a fake death scene of the kids that, as in Three Resurrected Drunkards, effectively restarts the film’s narrative, allowing the characters to once again test their fate.
For all of this film’s reliance on the stylistic ticks of video games, its narrative arc isn’t limited to the typically linear journey embarked upon by many a gaming protagonist, and the foursome’s path leads neither to enlightenment nor even happiness per se. What they’ve discovered in the months since their parents’ deaths is a solidarity with one another, and rather than have them conquer their fears and anxieties, Nagahisa wisely acknowledges that their social disconnection will remain an ongoing struggle. He understands that by tapping into the unifying, rather than alienating, powers of pop culture, they’re better equipped to deal with whatever additional hard knocks that the modern world will inevitably throw their way.
Cast: Keita Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Mondo Okumura, Sena Nakajima, Kuranosukie Sasaki, Youki Kudoh, Sosuke Ikematsu, Eriko Hatsune, Jun Murakami, Naomi Nishida Director: Makoto Nagahisa Screenwriter: Makoto Nagahisa Distributor: Oscilloscope Running Time: 120 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Palm Springs Puts a Fresh Spin on the Time-Loop Rom-Com
The film smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle.3
The pitch for Palm Springs likely went: “Edge of Tomorrow meets Groundhog Day but with a cool Coachella rom-com vibe.” All of those components are present and accounted for in Max Barbakow’s film, about two people forced to endure the same day of a Palm Springs wedding over and over again after getting stuck in a time loop. But even though the concept might feel secondhand, the execution is confident, funny, and thoughtful.
Palm Springs starts without much of a hook, sidling into its story with the same lassitude as its protagonist, Nyles (Andy Samberg). First seen having desultory sex with his shallow and always peeved girlfriend, Misty (Meredith Hagner), Nyles spends the rest of the film’s opening stretch wandering around the resort where guests are gathered for the wedding of Misty’s friend, Tala (Camila Mendes), lazing around the pool and drinking a seemingly endless number of beers. “Oh yeah, Misty’s boyfriend” is how most refer to him with casual annoyance, and then he gives a winning wedding speech that one doesn’t expect from a plus-one.
The reason for why everything at the wedding seems so familiar to Nyles, and why that speech is so perfectly delivered, becomes clear after he entices the bride’s sister and maid of honor, Sarah (Cristin Milioti), to follow him out to the desert for a make-out session. In quick succession, Nyles is shot with an arrow by a mysterious figure (J.K. Simmons), Sarah is accidentally sucked into the same glowing vortex that trapped Nyles in his time loop, and she wakes up on the morning of the not-so-great day that she just lived through.
Although Palm Springs eventually digs into the knottier philosophical quandaries of this highly elaborate meet-cute, it takes an appealingly blasé approach to providing answers to the scenario’s curiosities. What initially led Nyles to the mysterious glowing cave in the desert? How has he maintained any semblance of sanity over what appears to be many years of this nightmare existence? How come certain people say “thank you” in Arabic?
This attitude of floating along the sea of life’s mysteries without worry parallels Nyles’s shrugging attitude about the abyss facing them. In response to Sarah’s panicked queries about why they are living the same day on repeat, Nyles throws out a random collection of theories: “one of those infinite time loop situations….purgatory….a glitch in the simulation we’re all in.” His ideas seem half-baked at first. But as time passes, it becomes clear that Nyles has been trapped at the wedding so long that not only has he lost all concept of time or even who he was before it began, his lackadaisical approach to eternity seems more like wisdom.
Darkly cantankerous, Sarah takes a while to come around to that way of thinking. Her version of the Kübler-Ross model starts in anger and shifts to denial (testing the limits of their time-loop trap, she drives home to Texas, only to snap back to morning in Palm Springs when she finally dozes off) before pivoting to acceptance. This segment, where Nyles introduces Sarah to all the people and things he’s found in the nooks and crannies of the world he’s been able to explore in one waking day, plays like a quantum physics rom-com with a video-game-y sense of immortality. After learning the ropes from Nyles (death is no escape, so try to avoid the slow, agonizing deaths), Sarah happily takes part in his Sisyphean games of the drunk and unkillable, ranging from breaking into houses to stealing and crashing a plane.
As places to be trapped for all eternity, this idyll doesn’t seem half bad at first. Barbakow’s fast-paced take on the pleasingly daffy material helps, as does the balancing of Milioti’s angry agita with Samberg’s who-cares recklessness. Eventually the story moves out of endlessly looping stasis into the problem-solution phase, with Sarah deciding she can’t waste away in Palm Springs for eternity. But while the question of whether or not they can escape via Sarah’s device for bridging the multiverse takes over the narrative to some degree, Palm Springs is far more interesting when it ruminates lightly on which puzzle they’re better off solving: pinning their hopes on escape or cracking another beer and figuring out how to be happy in purgatory. Palm Springs isn’t daring by any stretch, but it smuggles some surprisingly bleak existential questioning inside a brightly comedic vehicle that’s similar to Groundhog Day but without that film’s reassuring belief that a day can be lived perfectly rather than simply endured.
Cast: Andy Samberg, Cristin Millioti, J.K. Simmons, Peter Gallagher, Meredith Hagner, Camila Mendez, Tyler Hoechlin, Chris Pang Director: Max Barbakow Screenwriter: Andy Siara Distributor: Neon, Hulu Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Hamilton Comes Home, Still Holding Conflicting Truths at Once
The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage.3.5
The actual physical production of Hamilton has never been at the heart of the show’s fandom. Its lyrics have been memorized en masse, Hamilton-inspired history courses have been created across grade levels, and its references have invaded the vernacular, but, for most, Hamilton’s liveness has been inaccessible, whether due to geography or unaffordability. Hamilton the film, recorded over two Broadway performances in 2016 with most of the original Broadway cast, winningly celebrates the still-surprisingly rich density of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score and the show’s much-heralded actors. But this new iteration is most stunning in its devotion to translating Hamilton’s swirling, churning storytelling—the work of director Thomas Kail and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler—to the screen.
Most films of live theater feel partial and remote. There’s usually a sense that with every move of the camera we’re missing out on something happening elsewhere on stage. The autonomy of attending theater in person—the ability to choose what to focus on—is stripped away. But instead of delimiting what we see of Hamilton, this film opens up our options. Even when the camera (one of many installed around, behind, and above the stage) homes in on a lone singer, the shots tend to frame the soloists in a larger context: We can watch Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), but we can also track the characters behind him or on the walkways above him. Every shot is rife with detail and movement: the rowers escorting Alexander Hamilton’s (Miranda) body to shore, Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones) hovering beneath a stairway as Hamilton confesses his infidelities to Burr, ensemble members dancing in the shadows of David Korins’s imposing set. There’s no space to wonder what might be happening beyond the camera’s gaze.
Off-setting the cast album’s appropriate spotlight on the show’s stars, the film, also directed by Kail, constantly centers the ensemble, even when they’re not singing, as they enact battles and balls or symbolically fly letters back and forth between Hamilton and Burr. Audiences who mainly know the show’s music may be surprised by how often the entire cast is on stage, and even those who’ve seen Hamilton live on stage will be delighted by the highlighted, quirky individuality of each ensemble member’s often-silent storytelling.
Kail shows impressive restraint, withholding aerial views and shots from aboard the spinning turntables at the center of the stage until they can be most potent. The film also convincingly offers Hamilton’s design as a stunning work of visual art, showcasing Howell Binkley’s lighting—the sharp yellows as the Schuyler Sisters take the town and the slowly warming blues as Hamilton seeks his wife’s forgiveness—just as thoughtfully as it does the performances.
And when the cameras do go in for a close-up, they shade lyrics we may know by heart with new meaning. In “Wait for It,” Burr’s paean to practicing patience rather than impulsiveness, Odom (who won a Tony for the role) clenches his eyes shut as he sings, “I am inimitable, I am an original,” tensing as if battling to convince himself that his passivity is a sign of strength and not cowardice. When Eliza Hamilton (Philippa Soo) glances upward and away from her ever-ascendant husband as she asks him, “If I could grant you peace of mind, would that be enough?,” it’s suddenly crystal clear that she’s wondering whether taking care of Alexander would be enough for herself, not for him, her searching eyes foreshadowing her eventual self-reliance. And there’s an icky intimacy unachievable in person when Jonathan Groff’s mad King George literally foams at the mouth in response to the ingratitude of his colonies.
The production’s less understated performances, like Daveed Diggs’s show-stealing turn (also Tony-winning) in the dual roles of the Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson and Renée Elise Goldsberry’s fiery embodiment (yes, also Tony-winning) of the shrewd, self-sacrificing Angelica Schuyler Church, benefit, too, from the way that the film’s pacing latches onto Miranda’s propulsive writing. In Jefferson’s return home, “What’d I Miss,” the camera angles change swiftly as if to keep up with Diggs’s buoyancy.
Despite Christopher Jackson’s warm and gorgeous-voiced performance, George Washington remains Hamilton’s central sticking point. While Jefferson receives a dressing down from Hamilton for practicing slavery, Washington, who once enslaved over 200 people at one time at Mount Vernon, shows up in Hamilton as a spotless hero who might as well be king if he wasn’t so noble as to step down. There’s a tricky tension at Hamilton’s core: Casting performers of color as white founding “heroes” allows the master narrative to be reclaimed, but it’s still a master narrative. For audiences familiar with the facts, the casting of black actors as slave owners (not just Jefferson) is an unstated, powerful act of artistic resistance against the truths of the nation’s founding. But for those learning their history from Hamilton, especially young audiences, they will still believe in Washington’s moral purity, even if they walk away picturing the first president as Christopher Jackson.
But Hamilton is complex and monumental enough of a work to hold conflicting truths at once. In attempting to recraft our understanding of America’s founding, it may fall short. In forcibly transforming the expectations for who can tell what stories on which stages, Hamilton has been a game-changer. And as a feat of musical theater high-wire acts, Miranda’s dexterity in navigating decades of historical detail while weaving his characters’ personal and political paths tightly together is matched only by his own ingenuity as a composer and lyricist of songs that showcase his characters’ brilliance without distractingly drawing attention to his own.
Dynamized by its narrative-reclaiming, race-conscious casting and hip-hop score, and built around timeline-bending reminders that America may be perpetually in the “battle for our nation’s very soul,” Hamilton, of course, also lends itself particularly easily to 2020 connections. But the greater gift is that Hamilton will swivel from untouchability as Broadway’s most elusive, priciest ticket to mass accessibility at a moment of keen awareness that, to paraphrase George Washington, history has its eyes on us. The show offers testimony to the power of communal storytelling, just as mighty on screen as on stage. That we are sharing Hamilton here and now offers as much hope as Hamilton itself.
Cast: Daveed Diggs, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Jonathan Groff, Christopher Jackson, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Leslie Odom Jr., Okieriete Onaodowan, Anthony Ramos, Phillipa Soo Director: Thomas Kail Screenwriter: Ron Chernow, Lin-Manuel Miranda Distributor: Disney+ Running Time: 160 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Review: In Family Romance, LLC, Reality and Fantasy Affectingly Collide
Throughout, it’s as though Werner Herzog were more witness than author, simply registering Japan being Japan.3
Werner Herzog’s Family Romance, LLC presents Japan as a place where the technological follies of modernity that many see as embryonic in the West are allowed to blossom unabashedly. The Orientalism inherent to this myth, that of Japan as a high-tech dystopia where human alienation reaches its pathetic zenith, is somewhat masked here by the film’s style, which inhabits that strangely pleasurable cusp between fact and fiction. We are never quite sure of the extent to which situations and dialogues have been scripted and, as such, it’s as though Herzog were more witness than author, more passerby than gawker, simply registering Japan being Japan.
The film is centered around Ishii Yuichi, playing a version of himself, who owns a business that rents out human beings to act like paparazzi, family members, lovers, or bearers of good (albeit fake) news. One of his clients, for example, is a woman who wants to relive the moment when she won the lottery. We follow Ishii as he travels to his business calls, which may consist of going to a funeral home that offers coffin rentals by the hour for people to test out, or to a hotel where the clerks behind the helpdesk and the fish in the aquarium are robots.
The camera, otherwise, follows Ishii’s encounters with his 12-year-old “daughter,” Mahiro (Mahiro). The girl’s mother, Miki (Miki Fujimaki), has enlisted Ishii to play Mahiro’s missing father, who abandoned her when she was two, and make it seem as if he’s suddenly resurfaced. The film’s most interesting moments don’t arise from its largely obvious critiques of simulation, but from the human relationship between Ishii and Mahiro. In the end, the film’s smartest trick is getting the audience to genuinely feel for this young girl on screen, acting for us, all while scoffing at Ishii’s clients for scripting their own emotional experiences.
We know the relationship between Mahiro and Ishii to be false on multiple levels. They may not be professional actors, but they are very much acting, and their interactions nonetheless tap into something quite authentic and emotional. Although their kinship is an act of make-believe, it’s driven by similar malaises that plague “real” father-daughter relationships. Mahiro, who doesn’t meet Ishii until she’s a pre-teen and is presumably unaware that it’s all just an act, struggles to articulate feelings that overwhelm her. Asking for a hug from Ishii is a Herculean task for her. But granting her the hug is also a Herculean task for Ishii, who ultimately confesses to wondering whether his real family, too, has been paid by someone else to raise him. Must a father’s hug be so clinical even when he’s getting paid to do it?
Such moments as that awkward father-daughter hug, a scene where Mahiro gives Ishii an origami animal that she made for him (“It’s delicate, so be careful,” she says), and another where she confesses that she likes a boy all point to the ways in which feeling slips out of even the most perfectly scripted protocols. That’s a relief for the kind of society that Family Romance, LLC aims to critique, one where tidy transactions are meant to neuter the messy unpredictability of human interactions but fail. Emotion slips out despite diligent attempts to master it, forcing even those who stand to gain the most from hyper-controlled environments to eventually face the shakiness of their own ground. Ishii, for instance, is forced to reconsider his business model when Mahiro’s demand for love starts to affect him. Ishii’s fear that he may also have been swindled by actors posing as parents tells us that authors are subjects, too, and that the equation between reality and fantasy is never quite settled.
Cast: Ishii Yuichi, Mahiro, Miki Fujimaki, Umetani Hideyasu, Shun Ishigaki Director: Werner Herzog Screenwriter: Werner Herzog Distributor: MUBI Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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