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.
The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time
The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.
One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?
A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.
So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.
100. Raw (2016)
As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing. Throughout Raw, director Julia Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized. Bowen
99. A Bay of Blood (1971)
Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene
98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen
97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz
96. Blood for Dracula (1974)
The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard
95. Martyrs (2008)
Writer-director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his film’s heroine, a “final girl” who’s abducted and tortured by a religious cult straight out of a Clive Barker novel, is forced to endure is considerable. Which is like saying that King Kong is big, Vincent Price’s performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugier’s film is grueling because there’s no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The film’s soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that there’s no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You don’t watch Laugier’s harrowing feel-bad masterpiece—rather, you’re held in its thrall. Abandon hope all ye who watch here. Simon Abrams
94. Night of the Demon (1957)
With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith
93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez
92. Let the Right One In (2008)
Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez
91. Black Cat (1934)
Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez
90. Brain Damage (1988)
Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen
89. Gremlins (1984)
Outlining his customary commentary on American society via an artistry informed by influences ranging from B horror films to Looney Tunes, Joe Dante satirizes our neglect of rationality under rampant commercialism through the nasty titular creatures. All raging id, the Gremlins want nothing more than to indulge in every vice that our increasingly corporatized culture has to offer. The resulting anarchy unleashed by the Gremlins during the yuletide season is appropriate, considering they were created when Zach Galligan’s Billy, like an official advocating free-market deregulation, ignored foreboding warnings that terror would occur if he had just stuck to the three simple rules of caring for Gizmo, the cutest of all Gremlins. Wes Greene
88. Angst (1983)
Gerald Kargl’s Angst is a 75-minute cinematic panic attack. Body-mounted cameras, high-angle tracking shots, amplified sound design, and a bone-chilling krautrock score swirl together to create a manic, propulsive energy that’s as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Leder’s unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Kargl’s camera prowls around Leder’s madman like an ever-present ghost—a haunting, torturous presence that captures every bead of cold sweat, each anxiety-ridden movement, and the agony of all his facial expressions as he tracks his prey. Angst is as singular and exhausting an account of psychopathy as any put to celluloid, thrusting the viewer helplessly into discomfiting closeness with a killer without attempting to explain or forgive his heinous acts. Smith
87. The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell brings his unique sensibility, at once resolutely iconoclastic and excessively enamored of excess, to this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun, which concerns accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession that run rampant in an Ursuline convent in 17th-century France. Like Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russell’s film serves as an angry denunciation of social conformity and the arbitrary whims of the political elite that effectively disguises itself as a horror movie. By brazenly conflating religious and sexual hysteria, and depicting both with his characteristic lack of restraint, Russell pushes his already edgy material into places that are so intense and discomforting that the film was subsequently banned in several countries and is to this day still unavailable on home video in a complete and uncut version. Budd Wilkins
86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick
85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes its time building a mood of palpable dread, eking menace out of every social encounter faced by a British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing on the coast of Spain. When they charter a small boat and travel out to a remote island village, the streets are curiously empty and the only residents seem to be sullen, introspective children. Ibáñez Serrador methodically draws out the waiting game, and as the kids gather their sinister forces and close in on our unsuspecting couple, a moral conflict arises. The adults are forced to contemplate the unthinkable, doing battle with the little monsters and struggling with the notion that they may have to kill or be killed. Tom manages to get his hand on a machine gun, and he carries it around with him protectively as the audience wonders to themselves how he’ll answer the question posed in the title. Whether or not the answer surprises us during these cynical times, the aftermath is as disarming as it is disturbing. The closing 10 minutes come from a different era in filmmaking, when horror movies could spit in the eye of the status quo and say that good doesn’t always prevail, no matter how much we’d like it to. Jeremiah Kipp
84. The Haunting (1963)
Cacophonous knocking, inexplicable coldness, and doors that have a habit of opening and closing when no one’s looking—the horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But they’re nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Haunting’s supercharged production values: Elliot Scott’s dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boulton’s swooping, darting wide-angle cinematography; and, most of all, a quiet-loud-quiet sound design that suggests the presence of the spirit world more forcefully than some corny translucent ghost ever could. The film’s oh-so-1960s psychosexual subtext may be slightly under-baked, but that only serves to heighten the verisimilitude of its supernatural happenings. After all, there are some things in this world even Freud can’t explain. Keith Watson
83. Häxan (1922)
Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Dillard
82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
John Carpenter’s 1995 sleeper is a lot of things: a noir, a Stephen King satire, a meta-meta-horror workout, a parody of its own mechanics. Carpenter can’t quite stick the landing(s), but watching his film twist and turn and disappear inside of itself as it twists its detective thriller beats into a full-on descent into the stygian abyss proves consistently compelling. Perhaps the best tack is that of Sam Neill’s driven-mad investigator, pictured in the film’s final frames hooting at images of himself projected in an abandoned movie theater. Perhaps the best way to enjoy In the Mouth of Madness is to relinquish your sanity, losing yourself inside of its loopy, Lovecraftian logic. John Semley
81. Near Dark (1987)
The zenith of a career phase defined by sneakily subversive genre films, Kathryn Bigelow’s melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. It’s a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the period’s twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp icons—Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhinged—bring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. It’s Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dream’s score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das
Review: Robert Zemeckis’s Take on The Witches Casts a Weak Spell
This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly.1.5
For anybody arguing that the grand potential for boundary-breaking entertainment in 2020’s wide-open world of content-hungry streaming services has produced more mediocrity than anything else, Robert Zemeckis’s take on Roald Dahl’s dementedly fun short novel The Witches could serve as a key piece of evidence. While there are some elements to admire in this adaptation, particularly its being cast with mostly black performers, much of it falls into the category of Competent But Unnecessary Remake. In other words, another piece of family-friendly-ish content to fill the yawning hours of pandemic confinement.
While the setting is shifted from late-1980s Europe to 1968 Alabama, the bones of the story—scripted by Zemeckis along with Guillermo del Toro and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris—match those of Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation. An orphaned and unnamed young boy (Jahzir Bruno) is sent to live in with his kindly but starchy Grandma (Octavia Spencer). After a frightening run-in with a snake-carrying woman who eyes him like he was a tasty piece of candy, the boy is informed by Grandma that what he saw was no woman, but a witch. Knowing from personal experience that witches love to kidnap children and turn them into animals, Grandma decides it’s time for a vacation. Unfortunately, their destination also happens to be the site of an international witches’ convention (meeting under the tongue-in-cheek name of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).
Much of Zemeckis’s film follows the boy coming to terms with loss and trying to rediscover some sense of fun even while navigating the danger posed by the witches and the delectable chocolate bars they use as bait. Things come to a head in a showy dramatic scene roughly halfway through the film set inside a swanky hotel ballroom. That’s where the witches—who otherwise look like heavily made-up society ladies from a well-intentioned, awards-courting period film about the South—meet to remove their human camouflage and scheme about best practices for annihilating children from the planet. Trapped under the dais, the boy is treated to the spectacle of the witches removing their wigs, gloves, and shoes to reveal a sea of bald heads, claws, and monstrous, Joker-wide jaws normally hidden by pancake makeup.
While advances in the quality of special effects since 1990 should theoretically have made the ballroom scene a blockbuster showcase, the CGI deployed here is for the most part unimpressive. The rippling of the witches’ bodies as they transform is rendered almost seamlessly. But that smoothness of effect ends up achieving little of the impact delivered by the grotesque Dark Crystal-esque physical effects that Jim Henson Studios used for Roeg’s more disquieting version. This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly. When Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch in Roeg’s film removed her human guise, she was revealed as a long-beaked monster rippling with pustules and stray hairs. The Grand High Witch of this version, played by Anne Hathaway, has the same sashaying arrogance, but it’s more suited for a fashion show’s runway than a child’s nightmares.
More positively, this adaptation of The Witches benefits from the increased willingness of studio producers to greenlight projects with largely black casts for a “mainstream” audience. Also, Zemeckis fortunately didn’t feel a need to repeat the previous film’s coda, which tried in slapdash fashion to cast some light on a chilling Grimmsian fairy tale about murdered children. However, that coda is replaced by a non-Dahl framing device voiced by Chris Rock that brings a new wrinkle to the conclusion which would be more enjoyable if it weren’t doing double duty as the launch pad for potential sequels or spin-offs.
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Chris Rock, Codie-Lei Eastick Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Satire Could Use Sharper Teeth
Too often, the film teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly.2.5
Following the massive global success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s most indelible comic creation became a victim of his own success. The mustachioed Kazakh journalist—whose racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and downright backwardness are leavened by his blithe optimism—became so recognizable—in part, through the ubiquity of bad impersonations and cheap Halloween costumes—that he had to be effectively retired. That’s a shame, because while Borat was always, at heart, a cartoonish stereotype, he was also a potent and surprisingly elastic embodiment of America’s deep ignorance about the rest of the world.
Though ostensibly a reflection of small-town Kazakh life, Cohen’s vision of Kazakhstan is really an elaborate amalgamation of various Warsaw Pact countries, including Russia and Poland, and though Borat himself would be loath to admit it, his incomprehensible language draws inspiration from Romani and Hebrew. In 2006, at the height of George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror, Borat was often mistaken for an Arab. In one of the original film’s most notorious scenes, rodeo producer Bobby Rowe advises Borat to shave his “dadgum mustache,” which makes him look suspiciously Muslim, so that he might even pass for an Italian. (All this before eagerly agreeing with Borat on the subject of executing gay people.)
In Borat’s much-belated follow-up feature—officially titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, with lengthy, ever-changing subtitles such as Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premier Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan appearing on screen throughout—Borat is coded less as an Arab and more as an avatar of Eastern Europe, that part of the world where poverty and post-Soviet collapse have fostered a climate conducive to sex trafficking. This region is where Jeffrey Epstein allegedly outright purchased a young woman, Nadia Marcinko, and where Donald Trump’s third wife (whom Epstein claimed to have introduced to the Donald) hails from as well. It’s no surprise, then, that cracks about Epstein and jokes about Melania being Trump’s golden-caged slave are frequent in the film. An important revelation is even inspired by a TV broadcast of the infamous footage of Trump and Epstein partying together. While Cohen’s satirical targets are too diverse and the film’s structure too freeform to lock the film down to a single thematic underpinning, the use and abuse of young women by powerful men is its most persistent satirical target.
After being sentenced to a gulag for disgracing his country with his prior film, Borat is offered by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) a chance to redeem himself by traveling to America and gifting Vice President Mike Pence with the locally famous simian porn star Johnny the Monkey. Unfortunately for Borat, Johnny is eaten on the journey over by his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who stowed away in the same shipping container as the primate. What’s Borat to do? The solution is obvious: to present Pence with his underage daughter instead—which he does, albeit from a distance, dressed as Donald Trump while Pence delivers a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When that fails, he chooses a much more willing recipient, one whose all-too-eager response to Tutar’s advances have already made headlines: Trump’s personal consigliere, Rudy Giuliani.
The climactic confrontation with Giuliani inside the Mark Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, during which Tutar poses as a conservative journalist in order to make her move on “America’s Mayor,” is perhaps Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s most shocking and uncomfortably hilarious scene—not simply for the already-infamous hand-in-his-pants moment. The giddiness that Giuliani exhibits in response to Tutar’s sexual advances illustrates so starkly the lecherous sense of entitlement that drives such inappropriate and predacious behavior.
If only the entire film were up to the standard of that scene, Cohen might have achieved the impossible and lived up to the groundbreaking impact of Borat. And there are other individual sequences whose discomfiting rawness would not have been out of place in the first film, such as a trip to a Christian-run crisis pregnancy center after Tutar accidentally swallows a baby decoration on top of a cupcake. The staff member, thinking she’s pregnant and asking for an abortion, firmly assures her that the baby is in fact a blessing, even when he’s under the impression that it was the result of incestuous rape. An interview with an Instagram influencer who preaches the gospel of feminine weakness and subservience to men is on point as topical satire though not as cringe-inducingly funny as the best Cohen material.
More often, though, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly. A trip to the Texas State Fair—with Borat disguised, as he is for much of the film, as a grizzled hayseed with a Prince Valiant hairdo—would seem to offer endless opportunities for up-close-and-personal pranks, but instead it’s largely just the backdrop for a few sight gags. Similarly, Borat’s elaborate transformation into Donald Trump in order to infiltrate CPAC presents a golden opportunity for some bread-and-butter Cohen antics, providing unsuspecting reactionaries with the perfect opportunity to tell the president they love (and, unwittingly, the audience) what they really think. Instead, the whole affair is wasted on a stunt that gets Cohen immediately kicked out of the event.
Where Borat mined the humor of reaction—how do unsuspecting, and mostly well-meaning, people react when confronted with a ludicrous foreigner who says wildly un-PC things?—the sequel too often feels like it’s desperately struggling to shock its unwitting participants and coming up short, as evidenced by an outlandish fertility dance performed at a debutante ball. This absurd spectacle, which climaxes in Tutar flashing her menstruation-soaked panties, barely produces a whimper from the spectators. And while the film is, for the most part, no less crude than its predecessors—gleefully indulging in stereotypes about backwards foreigners—there are signs that Cohen may have lost some edge in the intervening decade and a half.
Cohen evidently wants us to feel for his subjects, to find even a bit of empathy for some Qanon conspiracy theorists and Trump cultists. That may be a noble goal in itself, but it’s not always the stuff of sharp satire. Nor is the film’s closing entreaty to the audience to get out and vote. Borat, like practically all satirically minded comedy in the Trump era, has been swallowed up into the all-consuming maw of electoral politics. If the idea of the original Borat ending with a plea to go to the polls would have seemed almost absurdly out of place, in 2020, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doing the same feels almost inevitable.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova Director: Jason Woliner Screenwriter: Peter Baynham, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Swimer Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks Honors PTA’s Ambiguities
Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work.
The title of Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is misleading, evoking what the author refers to in the book’s introduction as “…cheerleading—the stroking, in prose, of already tumescent reputations.” While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, he’s willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Anderson’s strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances. Like Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, Masterworks pushes back against the simplistic, bro-ish language of adulation, and attending backlash, that often obscures a major artist’s achievements. In the process, Nayman achieves one of a critic’s loftiest goals: grappling with a body of work while honoring its mystery.
Masterworks is uncomfortable with the modern iteration of auteurism, which has been corrupted from its French New Wave origins by being utilized as often macho shorthand that denies the contributions of other craftspeople involved in a film’s production. (At the end of the book are several essential interviews with key Anderson collaborators, such as producer JoAnne Sellar, cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer Jack Fisk, and composter Johnny Greenwood.) Seeking to refute the Horatio Alger element of a particular auteur worship, in which a body of work is discussed chronologically, with a filmmaker’s maturation noted with easy retrospection as a kind of manifest destiny, Nayman assembles Anderson’s films in chronological order according to the time periods in which they’re set. The book opens with 2007’s There Will Be Blood (the director’s fifth film) and penultimately concludes with 2002’s contemporary-set Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s final (to date) curdled valentine to San Fernando Valley, as well as his first psychodrama with a loner at its center. Nayman only deviates from this concept once, as 2017’s Phantom Thread, Anderson’s eighth and most recent film, is saved for last and presented as a culmination of a blossoming sensibility.
This structure creates a fascinating temporal zig-zag that mirrors the chaotic, uncertain highs and lows of creative work. Masterworks moves us forward in the timeline of Anderson’s America while the filmmaker himself leaps all over the place in terms of artistic control. The wrenching ambiguity of 2014’s Inherent Vice, in which Anderson fluidly dramatizes the psychosexual ecstasy, despair, and hilarity of corrosive commercialist annihilation, gives way in the book to Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights, which Nayman astutely sees as a virtuoso primitive work, an epic that (too) neatly bifurcates pleasure and pain into two distinct acts while disguising its sentimentality with astonishing camera movements and a tonal instability that’s probably equal parts intended and inadvertent.
Control is the theme of Masterworks. Nayman charts, again in a nearly reverse order, how Anderson reigned in his juvenilia—the self-consciousness, the overt debts to various filmmakers, the wild mood swings—to fashion a tonal fabric that still makes room for all of those qualities, only they’re buried and satirized, existing on the periphery. The essential valorizing of Jack Horner, the paternal porn director of Boogie Nights, eventually gives way to the richer, more fraught examinations of obsessive pseudo-father figures like Daniel Plainview, Lancaster Dodd, and Reynolds Woodcock, of There Will Be Blood, 2012’s The Master, and Phantom Thread, respectively. Anderson’s films toggle between valorizing and criticizing men of industry who’ve, with a few exceptions, made America in their own neurotic image.
As these characters grow in complexity, their ingenues also evolve in nuance, becoming less fantasy projections of Anderson’s own desire to prove himself than startlingly unique expressions of rootlessness and ambition. Boogie Nights, which Nayman calls a two-and-a-half-hour dick joke, even sets the stage for the ironic phallic references of the other films, with their plunging oil derricks, broken glass toilet plungers, and, well, Woodcocks.
No critic has written so perceptively about Anderson’s mutating aesthetic as Nayman does in Masterworks. Most immediately, it’s a pure, visceral pleasure simply to read Nayman’s descriptions of imagery. On There Will Be Blood, he notably writes the following: “Emerging and descending at his own methodical pace, he’s an infernal figure moving in a Sisyphean rhythm, and the trajectory of his movements—grueling ascents and sudden, punishing drops along a vertical axis, punctuating an otherwise steady horizontal forward progress—establishes the visual and narrative patterning of the film to come.”
Such “patterning” is an obsession of Nayman’s, as it should be given the films under consideration, and he shows how Anderson buried the overt psychosocial daddy and women issues of Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia into an intricate formalism that’s complemented by a new kind of instability: unconventional, unexpected ellipses in the narratives that underscore a sense that we’re missing something in the psychology of the protagonists, in the America that contains the characters, and perhaps even in Anderson’s understanding of his own work. The obsessive nature of Anderson’s bold often “lateral” imagery is also enriched by the endless twins and doppelgangers that populate his films, suggesting that he’s chewing, with increasing sophistication, a set of preoccupations over and over, gradually triumphing over his fear of women as he sees his men with escalating clarity. Nayman uncovers many twins and cross-associations that have never personally occurred to this PTA obsessive, such as the resemblance that Vicky Krieps’s Alma of Phantom Thread bears to the many dream women haunting Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master, or how the mining of oil in There Will Be Blood is later echoed by the exploitive plumbing of minds in The Master.
Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses—especially the bold leap 15 years in time near the end of There Will Be Blood as well as the two-year jump near the beginning of the filmmaker’s 1996 feature directorial debut, Hard Eight—implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work. Some people believe that Anderson uses such devices to write himself out of corners, excusing himself from the task of building relationships or establishing in more detail the contours of the history informing the films, while, for his admirers, such flourishes are suggestive and freeing—excusing not only the author, but the audience from thankless exposition so as to skip to the “good parts,” the moments that cut to the heart of the protagonists’ and Anderson’s demons. Nayman understands Anderson to be fashioning a cumulative hall-of-mirror filmography that highlights an America in elusive, surreal, even daringly comic fragments. Or, per Nayman: “His later films are masterworks that don’t quite fill their own canvases, drawing power from the negative space.”
Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.
NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.
Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.
For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.
Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.
One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.
As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.
Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.
NewFest runs from October 16—27.
Review: Synchronic Undermines Its Delightful Strangeness with Handholding
About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes.2
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead built alluringly mysterious worlds in films like Resolution and The Endless. These works of horror-tinged science fiction draw the viewer in through their ambiguous relationships to traditional space and time; they’re complicated puzzles, and a good part of their fun is trying to fit the pieces together. But in their latest, Synchronic, the filmmakers do the fitting for you. About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes, making what might otherwise be delightfully strange into something too pat and easy.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) is a hard-living EMT in New Orleans. It’s not unusual for him and his partner, Dennis (Jamie Dornan), to respond to drug calls, and the film opens with heroin overdoses at a flop house, shot in a long take as the camera drifts from one room or character to another, building up a sense of dizzying dread. But the calls soon start to get weirder: someone who seems to have spontaneously combusted, someone bitten at a hotel by a nonnative species of snake, and someone in pieces at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
They’re all victims of Synchronic, a designer drug that literally sends young people, with their soft pineal glands, into the past—and just how far depends randomly on where they are in the present. Soon, Dennis’s 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), pops the drug at a party and disappears, trapped in history, a damsel in distress held captive by time itself. Conveniently, Steve has brain cancer, which has made his pineal gland unusually soft for his age; nearing death, dragging his knuckles across rock bottom, he decides to unstick himself in time and rescue his friend’s daughter. But first, though, he conducts a series of experiments to see how Synchronic actually works, explaining away the surreal with narrated video excerpts and white boards, suggesting a classroom lesson via Zoom.
Synchronic echoes Richard McGuire’s 2014 graphic novel Here and David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, exploring a physical location by journeying across time but not space. And the Quibi-sized trips to the past are the high points of Benson and Moorhead’s latest, evocative glimpses of a long and diffuse history, from the wooly mammoths and prehistoric men of the Ice Age, to the conquistadors and bayou alligators of colonization, to the racist rednecks of the early 20th century. But the filmmakers often play these seven-minute scenes as much for laughs as wonder. “The past fucking sucks!” Steve cries upon returning home from one trip. And he’s not wrong—especially for a black man in Louisiana.
Benson and Moorhead, as they did in The Endless, eventually cast off the science that sets their story in motion for the melodrama at its core. There are some gaps in logic, and some cruel manipulations (including Steve losing his dog to the vagaries of pill-induced time travel), all concessions to an underlying drama about family reunion and self-sacrifice. The film isn’t nostalgic, as it argues that the past is awful, and that the present a delicious miracle.
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead Screenwriter: Justin Benson Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sound of Metal Is a Tender, Singular Portrait of Addiction
Darius Marder’s film captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be.3
“Fucked!” That’s how Michael Gira described how his hearing is after a live show in a 2015 interview with the Guardian. Admitting to not even taking the simple precaution of wearing ear plugs while playing in one of the world’s loudest bands, the Swans frontman went on to say, “It’s a fix. It must unleash endorphins, because being inside the sound is to me the ultimate. When it’s working and we’re all psychically connected and the music’s taking us over, I can’t imagine anything more exquisite.”
At the start of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for a Swans-esque noise rock band, Blackgammon, is shown in such a state of euphoria, furiously pounding away at his drums and enraptured by the wall of sound filled out by distorted guitars and the screaming vocals of his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke). It’s the sound of agony and ecstasy intertwined—a form of sonic transcendence that is, for Ruben, every bit as alluring as the heroin addiction that he kicked some four years earlier.
The aural assault of the band’s live shows stands in sharp contrast to Ruben and Lou’s personal life, which consists of quiet evenings dancing to soul music in their RV and waking up to health shakes and yoga. But it’s seemingly only during their performances that Ruben feels both truly alive and at peace with himself, getting his fix of the rhythmic noise that’s become his new drug of choice. So when the slight ringing in Ruben’s ears the night before turns into a dull roar, leaving all surrounding noises muffled beyond recognition, it’s not merely his professional livelihood that’s at stake, but his mental and spiritual well-being as well.
This newfound state of near-deafness thrusts Ruben suddenly into a transitional phase, and Sound of Metal is in lockstep with him, using intricate sound design to approximate his nightmare state and amplify the confusion, anger, and disorientation that grips him. Ruben’s life on the road, and thus his existence “inside the sound,” becomes a thing of the past when, at Lou’s request, he agrees to stay at a remote community for the deaf that specializes in helping recovering addicts. And it’s here that Ruben is again forced to confront his addictive tendencies. Only now he’s no longer chasing the dragon, but the chance to regain his hearing, whether through his impulsive desire to lose what remains of it by immediately returning to the stage or by holding out hope for a costly cochlear implant that, despite what he thinks, isn’t quite the guaranteed quick fix that he believes it to be.
As Ruben begins confronting his current predicament, Sound of Metal risks becoming a familiar, inspirational tale of overcoming one’s disability. But the filmmakers fill out the familiar framework of Ruben’s dilemma with an acutely detailed portrait of a deaf community headed by the serene and compassionate Joe (Paul Raci), a former addict who lost his hearing during Vietnam and firmly believes that deafness isn’t a handicap.
As the film traces Ruben’s integration into this community, and his increasing understanding of sign language, it becomes even more highly attuned to Ruben’s emotional and sensorial experiences, both in terms of his newfound physical impairment and his struggle to accept the uncertain future ahead of him. It’s a tumultuous time for Ruben, and Ahmed enlivens the character with a restless, bristling energy that constantly clashes with the sense of stillness and inner peace that Joe tries to instill in him every day. And this underlying tension between Joe’s calm and patient acceptance of reality, and all its complications, and Ruben’s undying need to return to “being inside the sound” colors the rest of the film.
Later on, Joe tells Ruben that “those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.” Ruben’s professed atheism deflates the religious aspect of Joe’s statement, but as the final act takes an unexpected turn and the perpetual push-pull between stillness and chaos, silence and sound that grips Ruben at every turn are pushed to their breaking point, his advice takes on a newfound eloquence. For Ruben, the song may be over, but the feedback lingers on. Sound of Metal sees the value of stillness, particularly for addicts, but it also captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be. In a way, it can be an addictive drug all its own.
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric, Lauren Ridloff, Chris Perfetti, William Xifaras, Hillary Baack, Michael Tow, Tom Kemp, Rena Maliszewski Director: Darius Marder Screenwriter: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Ham on Rye Is an Elegant, Grand Chronicle of a Chaos Foretold
The film’s purposeful archness challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.3.5
Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, sets the audience up for a lark. Conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time, with the children’s clothes—long and flowing dresses, gaudily ill-fitting suits—suggesting holdovers from the 1970s. Even the immaculately put-together mothers and Hawaiian shirt-clad fathers seem like vestiges from a different era. No cellphones are initially glimpsed, and there are no overt pop-cultural references, though other textures place the story in the present day. In other words, there’s a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film that inspires distrust, as we’re invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know we’re being played with. This archness, which isn’t without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.
Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger don’t offer character development in a traditional sense, instead creating a free-floating and distinctly Altmanesque tapestry as they move among dozens of characters. The elegance and control of Ham on Rye’s aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the film’s shoestring production. Cinematographer Carson Lund bathes the story’s neighborhood settings in a pastel light that again evokes the ‘70s—or, at least, modern pop culture’s impression of the decade. And the camera lingers on details that indicate the ecstasies and miseries lingering underneath this suburban mirage, such as a shot of trash in a yard that suggests the aftermath of either indifference or violence, or of a postcard sent to a girl from her sister in college, which is written in an unnaturally, over-compensatingly proclamatory style that implies desperation while serving as a mockery of the girls’ simplified visions of future adulthood. Such details point to the influence of many titans of the cinema, among them Brian De Palma, Peter Weir, and David Lynch.
The film comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. A group of boys talk of the importance of “porking,” setting up a familiar “trying to get laid” scenario that never materializes. Later, they see another group of boys who resemble doppelgangers, and each gang puffs their bodies up, mocking the other, priming us for a fight that doesn’t occur, as the second gang jumps a chain link fence, never to be seen again. Elsewhere, a group of men, visually coded as old-school stoner types, drive around ready to raise hell, which also doesn’t come to pass. These half-formed anecdotes, and there are many more of them, come to resemble fissures in memory. We might be seeing the fuzzy, semi-sanitized, pop-mythos-addled recollections of the adult versions of these characters as they drink away their disappointments in a bar.
Once we’re sufficiently acclimated to Ham on Rye’s foreboding, wistful atmosphere, Taormina springs a poignant and satirical surprise. The children aren’t making their way toward a formal event like the traditional prom, but a ceremonial dance at a deli, in which they eat sandwiches together before forming boys- and girls-only lines so as to evaluate one another and couple. The strangeness of this arrangement, like the general timelessness of the setting, underscores the arbitrary ornateness of real ceremonies—prom, homecoming, graduation—that insidiously serve the purpose of conditioning us to become well-behaved cogs in the social machine, like all the disappointed parents who lurk in the periphery of the film.
Underneath Ham on Rye’s mystery and grandeur, then, is a theme that’s traditional to teen movies: children’s fear of selling out like their parents. Which isn’t to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests this dance with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naïve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. This sequence has the daring rhapsody of the prolonged prom sequence in De Palma’s Carrie.
Ham on Rye’s second half is informed with a kind of survivor’s guilt that’s also reminiscent of Carrie. Haley (Haley Bodell), the closest the film has to a protagonist, flees the deli ceremony, casting herself off as Amy Irving’s character was cast off in Carrie. After her friends seem to vanish transcendently into thin air after the dance, Haley is left behind with her despondent family, perhaps stranded in childhood or simply this town, and the film abruptly shifts atmospheres. The pastels are traded in for industrial nighttime hues, and cellphones and other modern bric-a-brac are suddenly visible, while the posh suburban neighborhoods, with their kids who can afford to go to dances that whisk them off to neverland, are traded in for strip malls with disaffected teens and working-class parents who’re pushed by their disadvantaged children to the brink of insanity. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream.
Cast: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez, Blake Borders, Cole Devine, Timothy Taylor, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Lori Beth Denberg, Danny Tamberelli, Clayton Snyder, Aaron Schwartz Director: Tyler Taormina Screenwriter: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Dating Amber Is a Touching Yarn About Defying Heteronormativity
David Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims.3.5
“This place will kill you.” That’s a recurrent refrain in Dating Amber, writer-director David Freyne’s dramedy about two queer teens, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), who pretend to be a couple so that they can make it through high school a little less scathed. It’s one of those lines that sometimes captures a character’s plight with such biting precision, and simplicity, that the viewer is caught off guard and the film is left feeling haunted. The place that “will kill you,” as Amber warns Eddie as well as her herself multiple times in one way or another, is rural Ireland in the 1990s, where divorce is still illegal—an idyllic meadowland plagued by backward prudes and homophobic bullies.
The demands of heterosexuality are lethal to both straights and gays in County Kildare. Amber’s father, for one, took his own life, and ever since then she’s been charging her classmates to use her family’s caravan as a place to have sex, so she can save enough money and move to London and work for a punk zine. By contrast, Eddie wallows in sorrow and denial, his gait the grotesque result of him trying to mimic butchness. He plans to do exactly what’s expected of him—that is, to join the army and marry a nice girl who will probably just make him sleep on the living room couch like his mother (Sharon Horgan) does to his father (Barry Ward). Amber knows that living one’s life according to the desires of others will kill you, so her offer to fake-date Eddie so their peers will stop harassing them seems more like an act of solidarity, an attempt to spare Eddie from the violence that she herself can take in stride.
The film is initially hyper-stylized, recalling Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. The colorfully coordinated precision of the mise-en-scène and campy over-acting all point toward satire. But there’s a gravitas to Dating Amber that keeps pricking us little by little until it completely takes over in the film. Our first warning that humor may have been only the sheen of a much more serious cinematic proposition, a cheeky red herring of sorts, comes in a sequence in which Eddie and Amber take the train to Dublin and happen upon a gay bar. Instead of lusting over male bodies or dancing the night away on drugs (that comes later), Eddie is instantly transfixed by a drag queen singing Brenda Lee’s “You Can Depend on Me.” He approaches her on stage as if, at last, untethered from the world. In a kind of communion, Eddie embraces the drag queen like a lost child re-encountering his mother. She keeps on singing, rocking Eddie as if casting a queer spell, or baptizing the “baby gay,” as she calls him.
From that scene on, Dating Amber rather seamlessly strips itself of its hyperbolic affectations to reveal a heartbreaking story of emancipation through friendship. Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims. A brief scene when Eddie’s doleful mother is, for once, alone at home and puts on a vinyl is particularly wonderful. She looks at her husband’s framed photograph and smiles, reminding us that while the fantasy of heterosexual domesticity holds many promises, in practice, it can be an exhausting hell. “Anywhere!” Amber tells Eddie when he asks her where he could escape to. And as their own faux love affair begins to crumble, they can at last embrace the queerness and messy feelings for which there is no required language, no blueprints, and as such the opportunity to actually find a place that won’t kill them.
Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan O’Connor Director: David Freyne Screenwriter: David Freyne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Bad Hair Is a Fiendish, If Tonally Uneven, Satire of Racist Beauty Norms
The film has an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.2.5
The year is 1989, and while TV network Culture is considered dead weight by its parent company, its specialty in burgeoning, black-fronted music genres leaves it poised to successfully cover the sounds and styles that will dominate the next decade. Enter ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams), the new boss with a new vision for the channel that includes rebranding it as Cult. Zora brought her own assistant, too, which puts pressure on Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), the assistant to Zora’s predecessor and an up-and-comer with ideas of her own, rent to pay, and something to prove. Her own natural hair gets her dirty looks from white co-workers in the lobby and a miniature lecture from Zora herself, so despite what her family and her other black co-workers might think, she follows Zora’s lead and gets a weave.
Justin Simien’s 2014 feature-length directorial debut, Dear White People, translated so neatly to an extended TV format in large part due to its plethora of characters and plot threads, and Bad Hair similarly evinces his keen eye for humanity. As in his earlier film, the characters all have a diverse range of relationships: with each other, with their own race, with their aspirations, and with the eyes of the world at large. Though someone like Zora could easily have been a thin antagonist, you instead feel the context of age, beauty norms, and societal pressure that shaped who she is and what she wants to do. Bad Hair can feel overstuffed at times, as Anna shares scenes with an ever-increasing range of characters, including her family, friends, an ex, and her skeevy landlord, but the details give the film an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.
And as it turns out, the weaves are also alive, and they’re literally out for blood, at least those being offered at a mysterious salon where Anna, looking to make her mark on Cult as a VJ, is sent to by Zora. Their tendrils seek out oozing orifices, and their roots plant hunger in the brains of the afflicted while manifesting strange dreams. These scenes, with characters restrained and yanked off screen by hair-tuft tentacles, are initially promising, but their rhythm is all wrong. They’re choppily and timidly edited in ways that direct the eye away from the action, as if to obscure any hokeyness that might become apparent from close scrutiny. As such, you may find yourself wanting for the sturdy, kinetic ingenuity of Sam Raimi.
The film is also uncertain of how seriously to take its horror. The extreme close-up of the weave process, as the needle snakes through the tender landscape of Anna’s scalp while drawing blood, is brilliantly cringe-inducing. One memorable, repeated image of Anna’s family sitting at the table while clumps of hair descend from the cracks in the ceiling is so effective because it’s allowed to be eerie, rather than immediately undercut by a line about a support group for women with killer weaves. By the time the climax rolls into view, the film abandons any seriousness, even bringing in Lena Waithe, as the host of one of Culture’s newly canceled shows, to make a Friday the 13th reference while snarking about the horror-movie proceedings. Bad Hair unintentionally mirrors its characters’ own insecurities, teetering awkwardly between straight-faced camp and outright farce as it cuts the scare scenes to ribbons and makes jokes about itself, as if to preempt any disbelief from the audience.
Worse, the film is constantly overexplaining itself. Dear White People contained similarly blunt, into-the-camera messaging, but that felt appropriate for a setting where students are wrapped up in college politics and subjecting their ideas to class scrutiny. In Bad Hair, one character who confronts Zora utters a Freudian slip, accusing her of appealing to a “whiter” audience when she means to say “wider” audience, as though the film hasn’t so clearly been making that point from the very start, when the central channel got knowingly rebranded as Cult. The interactions between Bad Hair’s characters already convey the domination of white beauty standards and how the self dissipates when capitulating to them, so the extra steps taken to underline these themes only works to dilute them.
Cast: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Blair Underwood, Usher Raymond IV Director: Justin Simien Screenwriter: Justin Simien Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020