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The Shallow Genre Trash of Trouble Every Day
Clarie Denis' bloody camp.
Claire Denis’ arty erotic horror film Trouble Every Day has been largely recuperated since it baffled critics in 2001. It’s now seen as a sensuous exploration of difficult realities. It’s a “chilling portrait of addiction,” as one writer has it; as another said, it “know[s] how to get on the inside of you.” What was initially seen as shallow bad taste or grotesquerie for grotesquerie’s sake is nowadays seen as an honest plumbing of depths. The movie is obviously not realistic, but it is appreciated for expressing something real.
I don’t mean to tell people they shouldn’t enjoy Trouble Every Day on those deep and serious terms. But I find it easier to appreciate the movie as shallow bad taste—or as playing with, and near, and around shallow bad taste. The film, in other words, is an exercise in camp, which drenches its melodrama in blood, and its blood in knowing melodrama.
The Vampire That Tells The Truth
As I’ve mentioned here before, I think critical understandings of camp are often somewhat garbled. Susan Sontag’s influential essay has led people to see camp as something that is so bad it’s good, and to largely divorce camp from queer aesthetics or queer content. I prefer Philip Core’s definition of camp as “the lie that tells the truth.” To quote myself, that’s “a definition bounded by the closet, and the way queer identity has been shaped by a demand for secrecy and visibility: a need to say you are exactly who you are by saying you are something else.”
Trouble Every Day is openly about forbidden desire. The two main characters have been infected with a mysterious illness which conflates their sexual desire with bloodlust—they’ve become vampire zombies of a sort. Coré (Béatrice Dalle) is deep in the illness; her husband, French doctor Léo Semenau, tries to keep her locked inside, but she regularly breaks out to find men to seduce and then bite to death. Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) has more control over his condition, which is why he hasn’t torn out the throat of his wife June (Tricia Vessey). It’s a near thing though.
These blatant queer desires are so blatant they drown out the blatant queer subtext. In theory, all the hunger and fangy need is directed heterosexward. But in fact it’s pretty easy to read the film as an extended double entendré about male doubling
Shane comes to France with his wife ostensibly to enjoy a romantic honeymoon. But in reality, he hopes to track down Léo. Shane funded Léo’s research; that’s how he ended up getting infected. He is desperate for a cure. June keeps trying to get Shane to have sex with her. But he rebuffs her—in one painful but also hilarious scene, he rushes away from their bed and locks himself in the bathroom to masturbate to completion. Then he leaves the hotel room to try one last time to track down the guy who is not his wife.
Shane’s problem is supposed to be bloodlust; he won’t sleep with his wife because he is afraid of killing her. But he could also simply be gay—a possibility that might well cross June’s mind when she finds Shane’s old Paris landlady with a box of keepsakes, including an old picture of Léo. (“Has he changed?” the landlady asks. “I wouldn’t know,” June responds.)
Bloody Flames, Flaming Blood
Same-sex desire isn’t just a subtext between Shane and Léo. It suffuses the film. As one instance, two young robbers who break into Coré’s house are shown lying down together on the floor smoking as they plan the raid. As another, the camera follows June’s swaying walk down a hallway in the hotel. She says hello to Christelle (Florence Loiret Caille) the maid who prepared their room; as she moves on, Christelle leans over, apparently watching her rear depart.
Then there’s the scene where Shane finally finds Coré. He staves off her efforts to fuck and devour him, and then sets her on fire. That is intercut with the scene of June and the landlady talking. June lights the landlady’s cigarette. Perhaps we’re not supposed to make the connection between flame and desire. But that’s part of the fun of camp: knowing and not knowing.
These little cruising winks help establish a landscape in which desire and gender are mutually destabilized. Everybody wants everybody, and everybody becomes everything everybody else wants. Shane slides under the covers in his bedroom fully clothed, perhaps to masturbate—and then we’re treated to a shot of beakers and test tubes in a lab being shaken and jostled, as if science itself is stimulated by the self-abuse. In sex scenes, the camera caresses hair follicles, blemishes, the curve of an appendage in such extreme close-up that you can’t tell who you’re looking at, or which is their gender.
There are also a couple of sequences in which female genitalia is both secret and revelation. In one, Shane comes into the bathroom and watches June taking a bath, the camera moving up her legs and lingering finally on her public hair. In another, the robber tears down the planks that seal Coré in her room, and is rewarded by the sight of her slowly pulling up her robe to show him what is underneath.
These scenes are so quintessentially examples of the male gaze they’re almost parodic. And part of that parody is that the gaze here is not male. Denis is the director, and the cinematographer is the brilliant Agnés Godard. Diegetically men are looking at women. Extra-diegetically women are looking at women.
And that gendered reversal raises the question of whether in fact we’re seeing another kind of queer gaze altogether. When Shane raises his eyes along his wife’s legs, slowly, slowly, is he hoping or fantasizing that he’ll see a different gender than he does? What about the rude boy who has abandoned his companion for Coré? The wrong desire distracts you, with a flourish, from the wrong desire.
Among those wrong desires is a yearning for genre. Denis is mostly known as an art director; that’s part of what threw critics when Trouble Every Day came out and looked like a horror film.
The movie itself is very aware of the stylistic rupture. That’s most clear in an early scene when the Browns are on the plane to Paris. After some light foreplay in their seats, Shane retreats to the plane bathroom, where he has a vivid, erotic daydream of his wife covered in blood. The art movie about marital troubles is interrupted by this uncontrollable, hidden lust for horror film.
Denis encourages viewers to indulge that lust too. Coré’s initial kills take place mostly off-screen; you see her come hither look, the man come-hithering back, and then the camera tactfully pans up to the sky for a space, until we return to her face covered in blood, or her husband digging a grave. The aporia calls to be filled; you have to write your own atrocities in the film of your own mind—as poor stoic Léo must do every time he leaves home, wondering what nightmare will greet him when he comes back. Critics, perhaps, were so down on the movie because they found themselves filming the horror film in their mind that they didn’t want to see.
Other overt moments of genre camp are direct references to horror films past. A researcher slices up a brain, pulling grotesque filaments from it, like he’s dissecting mad scientist tropes. Coré stands in a field, blood on her mouth, raising her arms in her coat so she looks like a vampire. And on one of the Browns’ outings to a church, Shane goofs around by imitating a zombie, groaning with his arms out and threatening June. The monsters are pretending to be monsters, they pantomime feeling the desires for blood and flesh that they actually feel. Gender as performance is genre as performance is, in this case, bloodsucker as performance.
Every critic loves Vincent Gallo acting as Shane acting out the zombie Shane actually is and that Gallo actually isn’t. Less lauded is the movie’s big B-movie worthy exposition dump.
In a flashback to an indeterminate moment, Shane confronts an older woman scientist in her smelly, overly brightly lit lab. She forces him to admit that he likes money (“So what?” he asks belligerently), and that he invested in Léo’s research in order to steal it. A team of scientists (“each the best in their field”) went to a remote location, where, despite Léo’s protests, Shane used Léo’s drugs on human subjects.
This scene is, again, out of time, and the acting is served with a big slice of brain-pink ham. Even sympathetic viewers have treated it as superfluous when they treat it at all.
But for me the gratuitious clunky artificiality of the exposition is kind of a joy. That’s not just because it made me giggle (though it did) but because it tells you everything in the most obvious way in order to hide the important obvious things it’s telling you. The crass American who lusts after money is also the Romero consumerist zombie. He’s an avatar of genre film, the sign that Denis has sold out.
And yet, despite the fact that he’s a plastic untrustworthy American, you are maybe supposed to believe Shane when he says that his accuser doesn’t understand him. She’s convinced he lusted after Coré, and he admits that he wishes they’d had an affair. That could be because he’s a heterosexual guy who didn’t get to consummate a relationship. But it’s also consistent with him being a closeted man whose desires go in directions he doesn’t want.
Shane pursued Léo out of greedy, selfish, and embarrassing desires—that’s what’s openly stated. And it’s what isn’t stated at all. The conversation is stilted and unreal because it is about Shane’s artificiality, which is his truth—of genre, of queerness, of capitalism, or of all at once.
New French Winking
Trouble Every Day is often discussed as an early entry in the New French Extremity horror film movement. But watching it isn’t an endurance test, as with Martyrs. Nor is it really about the ethics of consuming or imagining extreme violence. Rather, the film to me at least functions as a series of winking reversals and reveals. It’s all about watching for that meaningful look, of filling in that ominous genre trope.
When Christelle takes a break and slides onto the Brown’s bed in their empty room, is she imagining taking June’s place? Is she imagining being with June? When Shane says he will never hurt June, is it a lie because we see the marks he leaves on her skin, or because his physical distance from her, to keep her safe, is the thing that hurts her most? Everyone has a secret all the time, not least the camera as it caresses the water like a lover, or lurks behind Christelle as she walks, a la stalker cams.
Even the film’s most shocking, visceral scenes partake in this camp sleight of hand. In the first, Coré and the robber have sex and then we see her start biting him; his moans of pleasure become high-pitched whimpers of agony as she tears and tears and slaps him, still thrusting towards her own ecstasy. In the second, at the movie’s conclusion, Shane follows Christelle down to her changing room and surprises her undressing. It’s not clear whether she is initially interested or not, but in any case, he quickly exceeds any consent, tearing at her throat and then at her crotch until, like the boy, she writhes and screams and dies.
Both of these sexualized, graphic assaults are extremely disturbing. They’re also balanced against each other, mirror images, in which male and female assaulters and victims exchange positions and roles. The camera in these scenes doesn’t take either person’s perspective. In the first scene it’s so close you almost drown in their skin. In the second, the view is mostly fixed and off to the side. It’s difficult to see Christelle’s reactions, though it’s clear she becomes more and more distressed.
Too close or too far, though, the result is that the film doesn’t cue you to put yourself with either man or woman, assaulted or assaulter. Unlike in typical slashers or rape/revenge films, you’re not clearly feeling terror with the victims. You’re not reveling in inflicting carnage as in action movies either.
Denis instead stages a spectacle of desire and pain which simultaneously demands and refuses identification. And in this alienation, the individual actors become less characters and more markers which feel almost interchangeable. Coré could just as easily have attacked Christelle. Christelle could attack the boy. The boy could attack Shane. Shane did attack Coré, stumbling on her when he was looking for Léo. Who wants who, and for what, is just a convention. That’s one lie that tells the truth, causing trouble every day.
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