A woman necks passionately with a man in a car. On a plane, a husband kisses the forearm of his wife. A disfigured body is found in a field. In the opening minutes of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (2001), we are offered the three things that make life worth living: sex, love and death. This is nothing new, but leave it to Denis to make the conventional challenging. Unspooling in a particularly Denisian elliptical manner, it is revealed the woman making out in the backseat is Coré (Béatrice Dalle), the sick wife of Doctor Léo (Alex Descas). The nature of her illness isn’t clear, but has something to do with that corpse. Shane (Vincent Gallo) is the wooing husband, who is taking his nymphet bride, June (Tricia Vessey), to Paris on their honeymoon—and also to investigate his increasingly disturbing urges to nibble at her flesh.
In an ode to this partly comic and wholly unsettling film, what follows are a few appreciative notes on Trouble Every Day.
A is for Abjection
“Abject […] draws me toward the place where meaning collapses,” wrote Julie Kristeva in her essay “Powers of Horror.” Trouble Every Day is such a place. Horrific and erotic, dreadful and beautiful, the film breaks down the spaces we construct between these seemingly opposing poles. Never one for sentimentalized representations of sex or relationships, here Denis takes them to the extreme: carnal desires become cannibalistic. (Or at least chewable, as flesh isn’t necessarily consumed, but bitten and gnawed.) This is what makes Trouble Every Day one of the purest, and thus unnerving, representations of desire. For all its fantastical elements, Trouble Every Day perfectly mimics the process of falling in love and/or lust. It is the realm of the inexplicable and of unbridled cravings—Coré seduces a man then rips his lips off with her teeth, smearing his blood over the walls. Her actions are gut churning, but they are also reminiscent of that old adage lovers are wont to say: “You look good enough to eat.” Denis just makes it literal.
B is for Beau Travail
Trouble Every Day received mixed reviews after screening out of competition at Cannes, seeing pans to reserved praise. Over the years, it has gained a devoted following who have called for its re-assessment. But why the initial rejection? Blame the shadow of Beau Travail. Considered by many to be Denis’ masterpiece, the 1999 film launched her into the international spotlight. It is an accomplished, moving film of great beauty and intellect, evocatively circling issues of colonialism, desire and life. As a follow-up, Trouble Every Day was shocking—a gruesome genre picture that seemed more closely aligned with the much-maligned New French Extremity movement than an art house philosophy. Festival audiences and critics didn’t expect this, to say nothing of the not-so subtle sexist reactions regarding a female filmmaker embracing such an unpleasant story. To the latter point Denis offers these words to live by: “People who say, ‘Why do women make films like this?’ still think that women don’t have vast territories to explore.”
C is for Cunnilingus
In what has become the film’s most infamous scene, Shane succumbs to his (blood) lust and seduces a hotel maid, taking the crude expression “eating her out” literally. Of all the carnage in Trouble Every Day, Shane’s act is by far the most upsetting. (When I previously interviewed Denis, she told me: “I remember those two scenes [of Béatrice Dalle consuming a man mid-coitus and Vincent Gallo taking an act of cunnilingus too far], we were afraid shooting them, editing them, acting them.”) Though an earlier scene of Coré gnawing a different set of lips off a sexual partner mid-kiss foreshadows the moment, it still remains a cringe-inducing scene that causes viewers to tensely clench their legs together—as tightly as possible. But while it is grotesque, it is not gratuitous. Denis’ films are tactile in their sensual images. Here, she offers up the other side of that phenomenological coin: pain.
D is for Descas and Dalle
In Trouble Every Day, Denis reunited Descas and Dalle, whom she had cast in I Can’t Sleep (1996). There, they played an estranged couple struggling to build a family; he wanted to return to Martinique, she to remain in Paris. The casting choice has the quality of a knowing wink, as Dalle’s character once again traps Descas’ in France. But it is more than an inside joke that rewards viewers familiar with Denis’ work. The actors’ palpable chemistry is suggestive of a prior established trust, one that roots Léo and Coré’s unlikely union in some sense of unsettling reality.
E is for Eros
Léo wipes the blood off of Coré’s face, as she whispers, “I want to die.” In a movie filled with unexplained violence, this scene resonates with humanity and sadness. Though a monster, Coré is still loved by her husband. Of all of Léo’s actions—burying the men she has killed, locking her away from the outside world, giving up his research to be able to care for her—the way he gently cleanses Coré’s face speaks to his (delusional) devotion. Coré’s diagnosis remains a mystery, but Léo’s affliction is all too common: love.
F is for Font
This is the greatest riddle of Trouble Every Day: the purple credits in Comic Sans font, which ripple with a water accent. I have no real insights into this matter, but they never fail to both repulse and intrigue me. Perhaps it is yet another way Denis wishes to toy with abjection.
G is for Gallo’s gargoyle
On top of Notre Dame, Shane lurches after Jane, hamming it up with a stiff-limbed Frankenstein walk, then contorting his face to resemble those of the stone figureheads around him. Shane is confessing his demons to his wife. It is a playful, and thus all the more disturbing, way to reveal Shane’s monstrousness. But despite the comic tone, the sense of doom is never far. Jane removes a green scarf from her head. Slipping from her hand, it is carried away on a course it can’t control, headed for an inevitable fall. A fate that Jane might share in the arms of her gargoyle.