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Vol 3
 Issue 7 
9 June

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Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001)Looking
for trouble:
The dialectics of lack and excess

Claire Denis'
Trouble Every Day (2001)

Trouble Every Day is the closest Denis has come to making a pure horror film. It is also the closest she has come to making a film maudit. Taking a wholly different view, Philippe Met argues that it "is a superbly refined sample of cinematic art where such typical minuses as a flimsy plot, quasi-nonexistent characterisation, sparse dialogue and minimal regard for genre conventions all become assets rather than flaws."

Shane (Vincent Gallo) and June (Tricia Vessey) are a young American couple honeymooning in Paris. Shane is secretly on the trail of one Dr Léo Semeneau (Alex Descas), a research scientist he used to work with and whose unorthodox experiments seem to have mysteriously led to the terrible affliction beleaguering Coré (Béatrice Dalle), Semeneau's wife, and Shane himself: an uncontrollable urge to devour the hapless objects of their lust...

Affect and intellect:
Looking for clues in viewer responses

Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day premiered "hors compétition" at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, where it earned both the Prix Très Spécial and a dubious reputation as a film à scandale. In an ironically resonating sense, Denis' opus is indeed an altogether different or "special" kind of filmic proposition, positioned outside—arguably, a cut above—the rest of the competition. Add to this ostensible sui generis status an unrelentingly graphic, "abject"[1] depiction of sexual cannibalism, and you get a concoction that does not sit too well with many a viewer.

Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001)As a matter of fact, Trouble Every Day might just as well have fallen into the infamous category of films maudits, ie, pictures that are all but unanimously—and hysterically—reviled upon their releases, Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960) being perhaps the prime example in the horror genre. The controversial sex/gore sequences in particular (a mere two, all in all) shocked art-house enthusiasts and staunch admirers of Denis' earlier films alike. Contradistinctively, the appetite of most gorehounds seems to have been at once literally unsatiated by the sparse blood thrills and an invasive partipris of auteurist aestheticism and spoiled by the film's deleterious climate and disturbing implications. Excess and lack—at once too much or too little of a good (or a bad...) thing, to use the vernacular.

These widely divergent responses notwithstanding, the general sense tends to be that Trouble Every Day should be perceived as pertaining to a fundamentally, if not exclusively, primal, experiental (as opposed to analytical) order. Either because it consistently repels all hermeneutic gloss on the sole basis of its sensory and emotional impact, or because it can never truly elevate itself—be it by choice (as "corporeal" cinema) or by limitation (as would clearly be the case, for instance, with any unapologetic splatterfest)—from visceral, carnal concerns to a reflective, conceptual level.

Such an artificial wedge arbitrarily driven between affects and the intellect could not, however, be farther away from Denis' cinematic approach to and treatment of the nuances of sensation(s), the tender and/or violent choreography of now mortal, now deadly bodies, the ripples of desire on the surface of the human skin. Since for her one has first to be within the process of thinking before one can get inside bodies,[2] it might be said that the unthought of the body (rather than the conspicuous taboo of sex as a carnivorous act) constitutes the philosophical core of Trouble Every Day, as well as the more instinctual basis for most audience responses to it. In other words, less the dark side of the unconscious self than the filmic equivalent of a sensitive thought of the body in its most unthinkable incarnations.

From title to genre:
Looking at intertextual lack or excess

Just as much perhaps as the next viewer I find myself deeply, repeatedly "troubled" by Denis' film. A trouble that admittedly leaves me with mixed feelings, depriving me of the intensely exalting experience of wholesale adherence and plenitude—aesthetically, emotionally and cerebrally—procured in particular by two of the director's previous feature films, Chocolat (Chocolate, 1988) and, above all, the superior Beau travail (Good Work, 1999). A trouble resulting in part, to be sure, from Denis' idiosyncratic way of progressing toward a yet unknown filmic form, language or object rather than go, provocateur-like, for the facile shock value. A trouble which I want to address— to look for or into. By looking first, and briefly, at the (trouble with the) film's title.

What's in a title? What's in a name? The titular "trouble" originates from the original, haunting, quasi-elegiac score by British cult band Tindersticks (a name fittingly, albeit unnervingly, evocative of a paradoxical tenderness likely to ignite unstoppable cravings...), which serves as contrapuntal accompaniment to the unspeakable acts perpetrated by the protagonists (Dalle as the mesmerisingly feral Coré; Gallo as the hypnotic, zombie-like Shane) and the ensuing moral or physical distress. There remains, however, the troubling vacillation of the title which, in its own right, also says too much or too little, or rather says more by saying less, as it dramatically understates the terrifying reality of the events unfolding onscreen. Unquestionably a far cry from what one would spontaneously associate with the daily worries of ordinary life, or even, for that matter, with more tragic and violent circumstances, especially as they are relayed—both amplified and banalised—by the media in the sensationalistic guise of "breaking news."[3]

How then does such a rhetorical version of a lack-and-excess dialectic—titular litotes versus visual and notional hyperbole—translate into cinematic terms? The long prevailing opposition between two broad aesthetic paradigms of cinéma fantastique inevitably comes to mind: one favours suggestion, ellipsis and restraint, thereby keeping the horrific climax ambiguously offscreen; the other combines exhibition, overstatement and explicitness for full impact, the on-camera manifestation of obscene evil.

Interestingly enough, Denis seems to have sensed and tacitly acknowledged that this type of dichotomy has now become largely obsolete in a show-it-all/see-it-all crazed era where, save some isolated, variably convincing cases like The Blair Witch Project (1999), "the frenzy of the visible" is not just the pornographic but the general rule, mainstream or underground.[4] Which in no way precludes attempts, on her part or in principle, to re-inject some sense of lack or deprivation within visual overkill or saturation, and to thereby rediscover the "unutterable" underneath the "overvisible." Or the concomitant effort, in lieu of the expected from-normality-to-deviance trajectory, to retrieve some grain of human nature, some everyday life residue from within apparent monstrosity and savagery, which might afford the viewer an uncanny, instant recognition of a shared humanity. As Denis notes apropos of her treatment of a notorious serial killer case with multiple gender, social and racial implications in J'ai pas sommeil (I Can't Sleep, 1993): "For me, the monster is invisible. If there is a thread running through all my films, it is that evil is never the other, everything is inside and never outside."[5]

The genesis of Trouble Every Day is interestingly indicative of an overt reluctance to either duplicate, subvert or situate itself too specifically within the history and canon of the horror genre. As Denis explained in an interview with Jean-Michel Frodon,[6] her film—as well as Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep (1997), a nostalgic yet playful homage to Louis Feuillade's silent crime serial, Les Vampires (1915-1916), and its anagrammatic heroine—grew out of a later abandoned anthology film project with Assayas and Atom Egoyan. Wary of participating in any parodic treatment of genre material, Denis had turned down an earlier proposition from an independent US producer asking several "auteurs" to direct a horror series. It is therefore no coincidence that Trouble Every Day carefully steers clear of those subgeneric formulae that tend to reflect a relative exhaustion, if not of the whole genre, at least of its "exploitation."

A few recent Gallic examples here come to mind, from postmodern, self-referential slasher flicks more or less à la Scream (1996), such as Lionel Delplanque's directorial debut, Promenons-nous dans les bois (In the Woods, 1999)—a visually stunning, skillfully manipulative or derivative, yet perhaps ultimately gratuitous exercice de style—to Grand-Guignol extravaganzas like Mathieu Kassovitz's psycho-thriller, Les rivières pourpres (The Crimson Rivers, 2000), or the somewhat futile pyrotechnics of Eric Gans in Le pacte des loups (Brotherhood of the Wolf, 2001), attempting to emulate or "Frenchify" Hollywood's action blockbusters. Not to mention hybrid, marginal entries like Antoine de Caunes's Les morsures de l'aube (Love Bites, 2000), a part-humorous, part-chic look at today's "swinging Paris" nightlife where the pseudo-vampiric feature is mainly limited to the iconic cult value of Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento.

Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001)Clearly, Denis' unique film does not belong in any of the above categories and "excesses." As a matter of fact, gestural allusions or visual cues, let alone verbal references, to classic horror paradigms or scenes, are few and far between. A brief sequence atop the gargoyle-adorned towers of Notre Dame cathedral where Shane facetiously mimics the automaton-like gait and posture of Quasimodo crossed with Frankenstein's monster. A shot of a Nosferatu-like Coré opening her parka with an animalistic relish of newly acquired freedom and the jubilant sense of a ravenous appetite, as she roams about some nondescript wasteground of suburban Paris. Scientific archival footage and repeated close-ups of plant incubators that are vaguely reminiscent of a sequence in FW Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) where Professor Bulwer (John Gottowt) lectures about carnivorous plants and a vampire-like polyp on display.

In the course of her many interviews, Denis barely mentions Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942) and Jean Cocteau's version of La belle et la bête (Beauty and the Beast, 1946), alongside Sheridan Le Fanu's fiction,[7] as epitomising an erotic compulsion that cannot seem to find fulfillment through the usual, socially accepted manifestations of sexuality. Some of these intertextual sources do not even come up in her commentary for the French DVD of the film; instead, the odd model tends to be contemporary rather than from times past, photographic rather than filmic (or literary). For instance, she repeatedly cites Canadian artist Jeff Wall's deceptively real life-looking compositions as generally inspirational, and some of Woodward's photographs as a direct influence on the gruesome, fingerpainted fresco, courtesy of her latest victim's blood, along which a haggard, spectral Coré is seen pacing back and forth in an eerily slow, demented pantomime.

Looking at bloodied bodies
in a consistent body of work

Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001)For all her uncanny—and, to some, confusing—ability to move freely between various formats (from shorts to features, from fiction to documentary) and across, or outside of, established genres (hence her reputation as an "unclassifiable" director), Denis' enduring loyalty to a team of actors (Gallo, Dalle, Descas et al) and close collaborators (co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau, virtuoso cinematographer Agnès Godard) is hard to miss and is only matched by a remarkable poetic permanence and thematic recurrence pervading her filmography. The previously mentioned humanity-within-monstrosity background of true crime story-based J'ai pas sommeil is for instance continued, indeed disturbingly foregrounded, in Trouble Every Day's all-too-human beasts. More largely and more importantly perhaps, latent sexual repression or taboo— from the fantasised yet prohibited (and thus feared) interracial union in Chocolat's taut colonial context to the implicit homoerotic tension of Beau travail's military drama via the desired, albeit forbidden woman of S'en fout la mort (No Fear, No Die, 1990)—finds a spectacular outlet or acting out in Trouble Every Day's carnal conflagration (literally so, in the case of Coré's ending in flames).[8]

Metaphorically heralded by the pre-credits purple or blood-red shimmering of the Seine river at dawn—a visual that symbolically overflows into, or "contaminates," the credits sequence proper—and much more graphically introduced by Shane's equally anticipatory and angst-ridden vision of his bride lying in a pool of blood, the close iconic association of body and blood, usually enhanced by the use of an a-minima camera, is, not surprisingly, an echo from some of Denis' previous films. Dah's (Isaach De Bankolé) meticulous cleaning of fatally wounded Jocelyn's (Alex Descas) bloodstained body at the close of S'en fout la mort, in particular, could be read as a distant foreshadowing of a scene in Trouble Every Day where Léo gently wipes his shivering wife's naked body (covered in one of her unfortunate partners' blood) with a sponge, as a mother would wash or caress her baby.

A common cleansing gesture—the only affordable act of love or token of friendship...or sign of forgiveness. Earlier in the same sequence from Trouble Every Day, Agnès Godard's camera had glided close to the ground, as if over some African savannah where dangerous predators are on the prowl, amongst the tall, blood-dripping grasses of a nocturnal open site suffused with tawny tones and amber sodium light where the feline Coré had moved in for the kill.

A final, polemical look at lack and excess

Despite occasional excesses of the flesh and accompanying flourishes of violence, Trouble Every Day is a superbly refined—or shall we say "lean"?—sample of cinematic art where such typical minuses as a flimsy plot, quasi-nonexistent characterisation, sparse dialogue and minimal regard for genre conventions all become assets rather than flaws. It could be argued, however, that therein precisely lies a relative snag, as too little is, so to speak, still too much. For instance, the exchange between Shane and one of Léo's former assistants is both thematically and narratively redundant and awkward; in and of themselves, the surreal inserts of grainy, slow-motion footage about a scientific settlement in an unidentified rainforest are much more efficient, at once tantalisingly allusive and subtly unsettling.

In a more radical sense, if a film like Irma Vep is at times unintelligibly loquacious (thanks in no small part to Jean-Pierre Léaud's thick-accented English and rapid-fire delivery!) and aptly so, as a parodic take on a silent serial of yesteryear, Trouble Every Day is in many respects an ideal candidate for a latter day silent (horror) film, while deserving to retain its admirable soundtrack. In fact, when the highly stylised Beau travail was first released, Denis was asked whether she would ever consider going all the way and make a "dialogue-free" feature. While generally valuing silence as one of cinema's cardinal virtues (as exemplified by such films as Sarunas Bartas's A Few of Us [1996]) and emphasising her commitment to whittle away at unnecessary verbal information in her own films, she remained tellingly evasive in her response.[9]

Similarly, for all their residual, diffuse or reappropriated status in Trouble Every Day, the obligatory horror genre motifs—an unexplained curse, bestial or monstrous behaviour, scientific hubris, brain dissection, a chainsaw (which Coré uses not to dismember human bodies as in Tobe Hooper's infamous opus,[10] but rather to carve her way out of the villa where she is confined), to name but a few—might have been subjected to an even more drastic trimming-down process. Severing these lingering ties to recognisable tropes or logical causality would certainly have helped Denis brush aside the persistent suspicions of, or objections to, a genre film redeemed—or damned—as an "arty" film, or conversely, of auteurism parading as horror.

In its peculiarly inconclusive way, the epilogue to Trouble Every Day puts a final twist on the dialectic of lack and excess. "I want to go home," Shane tells his wife as he is about to step out of the shower after mauling a hotel maid ("designated" early on as future prey) to death. A lingering shot of thin blood trickling down the shower curtain: probably too much and/or too little information about the carnage for hitherto unsuspecting June. Husband and wife both look furtively in that direction, then at each other. Cut to a close-up of June's piercing eyes where irreconciliably conflicting emotions—a horrified awakening to an incomprehensible truth, a will and an impossibility to forget and forgive, intense fear and loving trust—seem to flit by. For which there exists no such thing as a reverse shot. All that remains is an infinite void into which the overflow of the human psyche eventually gets sucked up. In film they call it "Fade to black..."

Philippe Met

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Also of interest
About the author

Philippe Met is Associate Professor of French at the University of Pennsylvania where he also teaches film studies. He has written widely on fantastic literature and modern French poetry, and a piece on surrealist Robert Desnos and fantastic cinema appeared in an edited volume in 2000. He is the author of Formules de la poésie. Etudes sur Francis Ponge, Michel Leiris, René Char et André du Bouchet (Presses Universitaires de France, 1999) and editor of André du Bouchet et ses autres (Les Lettres Modernes, 2003). He is currently working on several book projects, including one on the figure of the child in international horror cinema.

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1. On the concept of abjection, see Barbara Creed's study (based on Julia Kristeva's Powers of Horror), The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).return to text

2. See her interview with Olivier Pélisson (9 September, 2002) on Monsieur to text

3. On this last point, see for example one of Frank Zappa's protest songs, also entitled Trouble Every Day.return to text

4. I am here referring to Linda Williams' seminal study, Hardcore: Power, Pleasure and the Frenzy of the Visible (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989).return to text

5. "Interview with Claire Denis," Les Cahiers du cinéma 479 (1980) : 27. Returning to these issues in Sébastien Lifshitz's documentary, Claire Denis, la vagabonde (Claire Denis, the Wanderer, 1995), she identifies Jean Gabin's character in Renoir's classic adaptation of the Zola novel, La Bête humaine (The Human Beast, 1938), as "one of us," despite (or is it because of ?) an atavistic bloodlust surfacing with tragic results whenever his senses are aroused..return to text

6. Le Monde, 10 July, 2001.return to text

7. Le Monde, 10 July, 2001. The implicit reference here is most likely to the Irish fantasist's celebrated novella, Carmilla, so oftentimes, if mostly loosely, adapted to the silver screen.return to text

8. While driven by a renewed effort "to film intimate moments in a non-voyeuristic manner" (see n2, above), Denis' latest feature, Vendredi soir (Friday Night, 2002), marks a distinct shift to an almost enchantingly serene form of sensuality.return to text

9. "Ce poids d'ici-bas. Entretien avec Claire Denis" (January 2001), Vacarme. In the same vein, Denis expresses her admiration for Japanese master of abstract, minimalist filmmaking Yasujiro Ozu in Claire Denis, the Wanderer.return to text

10. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974).return to text

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