Too Close for Comfort
Kristi Mitsuda on Trouble Every Day
My discovery of Claire Denis came belatedly, not by way of critical darling Beau travail but its reviled follow-up, Trouble Every Day. Although I held no preconceptions prior to viewing it--intrigued simply by a vague reference to the French film starring Vincent Gallo as a vampire—I later learned of its ill-received premiere at Cannes and critical dismissal upon U.S. release. (Interestingly, another Gallo-starring movie, The Brown Bunny, would later provoke a similarly outsized reaction, its warmhearted inquiry into human experience likewise misunderstood by viewers distracted by attendant graphic displays.) But Denis’s sensibility immediately spoke to me. A recasting of the monster mythos pitched not in the key of the supernatural but integrated into a sensuous naturalism distinctive to the director, Trouble Every Day sees Denis devoting to the subject matter the same attentive delicacy of feeling as she does a French girl’s upbringing in colonial Africa in Chocolat or a woman’s last one-night stand before moving in with her lover in Friday Night.
Structuring Trouble Every Day around the sensory rather than the story, Denis takes a characteristically elusive approach to narrative (later taken to its zenith in L’Intrus) devoid of most expository elements and inclined towards an atmospheric impressionism, aided as ever by Agnès Godard’s textured cinematography which captures a certain quality of light and sense of tactility as integral as any narrative conceptualization, directly contributing to the film’s slow-mounting tension. And suspense via Denis more closely resembles enchantment than generic anticipation of “boo!” moments cued by abrupt music. It involves contemplation of mesmerizing minutiae—a breeze catching a green scarf and baring a neck, blood coloring a golden-lit field of swaying grass—and careful tonal calibration. Transfixing close-ups on bodies introduce an abstract quality, distilling every person down to the harsh facts of the flesh.
Realistically and uncomfortably yoking carnage inextricably to the erotic, the filmmaker poetically, if queasily, takes conceptions of sexual hunger to their extreme but logical conclusion. Although equating vampiric bloodsucking with sex is nothing new, most recent films in the genre (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Interview with the Vampire, Twilight) trade in cheap titillation provided courtesy of beautiful movie stars set in an often ornately costumed and make-upped fantasy world. Denis’s dangerously carnal and earthy description renders these other representations cutesy by comparison. An infamous, nearly interminable sequence sees Beatrice Dalle’s Coré delightedly and in gory, extended detail ravaging a teenage boy during intercourse as he weeps and shrieks in terror, a scene made the more disturbing by its undeniably seductive build-up; the unknowing teenager tears at the barricade Coré’s husband has constructed to keep her from doing harm, the pair hungrily kissing and licking at one another through the wooden beams. It’s desperate human sexual desire turned completely horrific.
Denis doesn’t clarify the cause of Shane (Gallo) and Coré’s “sickness”—one in which orgasm is achievable only through simultaneous consumption of a sexual partner’s blood—although allusions to scientific experiments conducted years earlier by Dr. Leo Semeneau (Alex Descas), Coré’s husband, provide hints. Shedding pretenses to precise plotting, the director focuses on Shane’s transformational experience and the resistance he puts up in response, paralleled by Coré’s rapacious abandon to purely primal impulses (meanwhile, intimations as to the nature of Shane and Coré’s relationship suggest an analogous link between vampirism and sexually transmitted disease). Newly arrived in Paris on the pretext of a honeymoon, Shane spends most of his time anxiously searching for Leo in hopes of finding a cure for the malady that has him popping seemingly ineffectual pills and fantasizing about his lovely bride (Tricia Vessey as June) drenched in blood, unable to consummate the marriage for fear of literally devouring her; as it is, June bears a love bite on her shoulder and bruised lips from past unfulfilled friskiness.
Despite Gallo’s frequent casting in eccentric roles, directed by others (Freeway II: Confessions of a Trick Baby, anyone?) or himself (Buffalo ’66, The Brown Bunny), not to mention even more eccentric off-screen statements and antics (including selling his sexual services and sperm on his website), the actor has a less often noted sensitivity and quiet magnetism, and Denis mines these qualities perfectly (as she does in more abbreviated fashion in Nénette et Boni). Possessed of a haunted appearance, Gallo seems at once frail and dangerous. He allows us to feel Shane’s desire and desperation as he fights against an amplified appetite, and Denis provides him substantial room to do so by placing the character in situations highlighting the charged eroticism small encounters present in the face of deprivation. On the Metro, he sidles up behind a woman, absorbing her scent before shamefacedly falling back upon the indicting glance of another passenger. In a separate instance, he watches as a woman applies lipstick in front of a mirror before she notices him and quickly moves on, visibly spooked. Denis details these subtle, almost feline reactions, as various females seem instinctively to sense the threat Shane poses. One of these is the chambermaid (Florence Loiret-Caille) at the hotel where he and June are staying.
Following the maid on the way to the honeymoon suite, Shane trains his gaze on the back of the girl’s neck, appealingly exposed by a carelessly worn butterfly clip. Later, the camera tracks her as she goes about her daily duties; Denis returns again and again to close-ups on her nape as captured from behind—prey being tracked—and the clicking sound of the housecleaning cart’s wheels being pushed along in front of her provides a rhythmic tempo, contributing to a building sense of dread satisfied by the film’s penultimate sequence in which Shane finally gives in to his bloodlust.
Such disquieting depictions of carnivorous sex sit alongside moments of unexpected tenderness between Coré and Leo on the one hand—he cleans up unquestioningly after her kills and sponges the blood off her body—and June and Shane on the other, as the latter reservedly snuggles next to her as much as he dares. And perhaps only Denis could imbue a shot of a bed bearing the slight imprint of the housekeeper’s body from when she lay down on it to take a cigarette break—the impression later caressed by Shane—with so acute a sense of aching hunger. In her explorations of humankind’s baser animalistic urges and the human need for emotional closeness, the director strikes a discomfiting but strangely beautiful chord. And perhaps this in part accounts for the critical compulsion to deride and tag the film merely “silly.” Modern vampire flicks tend to be schlock-horror affairs served up as easily digestible entertainment (even Let the Right One In falls comfortably into both coming-of-age and love-story categories). But, bringing thoughtful seriousness to bear on the genre, Denis simply does as she usually does—seeks out fleeting resonances in freeform—and this animates Trouble Every Day with an unnerving frisson.