TRoUBLE EVeRY DAY
This annual October series considers the consequences of when international auteurs reknowned for excellence in the field of le cinema dip their toes in the chilly waters of the disreputable horror genre.
An exploration of what happens when Abel Ferrara or Jim Jarmusch takes on vampirism, Nicholas Roeg dreams about killer dwarves, Philip Kaufman gets paranoid about pod people, Ingmar Bergman howls at the moon or Michael Powell indulges his voyeurism fetish. A series about the beautiful collision of grindhouse and art-house.
TROUBLE EVERY DAY
claire denis, 2001.
The New French extremity was a weird film movement because while quite a few filmmakers associated with that scene dismissed that label and wanted to distance themselves from any kind of categorization (Marina De Van & Bertrand Bonello immediately come to mind), they certainly didn’t do much to distance themselves from the key elements commonly associated with the New French Extremity (graphic violence, sometimes unsimulated sex, gore & various taboo/transgressive subject matter). All throughout the 2000’s Bertrand Bonello’s work dealt with pornography (The Pornographer), kinky sexual fetishes (House Of Tolerance) & graphic violence against transgendered woman (Tiresia). He even cast real porn actresses in his work from time to time. Marina De Van’s solo work, and her work with Francois Ozon (a non-starter varsity letterman of the New French Extremity), was quite tough to stomach as well (Sitcom, In My Skin & certain specific scenes from See The Sea come to mind). Other filmmakers like Gaspar Noe seemed to embrace the New French Extremity by making a trilogy of films that focused on the same characters (The Butcher, I Stand Alone & Irreversible).
But Trouble Every Day is one of the key films that often defines The New French Extremity genre yet Claire Denis only dipped her toe in it (the same could be said about Haneke & The Piano Teacher). Unlike Noe, Bonello, Ozon & De Van, she never went back. Trouble Every Day doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of her work, but there’s still no other Claire Denis film like it (if that makes any sense). Perhaps Claire Denis is always associated with The New French Extremity because Alice Houri (one of her earliest regulars) has appeared in quite a few different films from that particular scene (Trouble Every Day, The Pornographer & Tiresia) which kind of ties everything all together.
In my opinion Trouble Every Day is a cut above the rest because it wasn’t made simply to shock people like so many other films from that scene. I’m not saying I was Trouble Every Day’s first original fan (although I was on board from the ground floor) but I do find it peculiar that there has been a recent rise in popularity with Claire Denis’ anti-vampire vampire film over the last 5 years which just so happens to coincide with the (small) rise in popularity of my personal blog; Pinnland Empire (a film site where a third of the content is dedicated to the work of Claire Denis). No one likes it when they have to share a personal piece of art with a (slightly) larger group of overnight fans that suddenly decided something is cool after what seems like a decade too late. Whether it’s a misunderstood album that no one ever gave a chance or an overlooked book that went unnoticed by the rest of the world - it’s a wonderful feeling to have a piece of art all to yourself or to be part of a very small close-knit community that has the same appreciation for something as you do. It makes you feel special.
And I’m an only child so the concept of sharing something personal with a bunch of strangers is even more difficult for me to accept. I don’t mean to brag but I’m probably one of the few "regular"/non-film critic Americans that saw the post-festival circuit Trouble Every Day when it first came out in theaters (in 2002 I saw it in a small Italian theater while studying abroad in Rome). So I remember when this film was initially hated by most people that were familiar with it. But I'm used to films I like and/or love not getting the respect they deserve. Fear X, To The Wonder, Soderbergh's Solaris & Ghost Dog are some of my all-time favorite movies.
But the older I get the less I feel the need to defend certain films I love that others don’t. I think more people should start doing that. If you love a misunderstood film that people constantly trash you should let them continue to trash it. That means the film becomes yours and you get to share it with less people. In fact, you should add flame to the fire and encourage the bashing & negative criticism. Do whatever you can to steer people in the opposite direction of your little personal treasure. Like I’ve been telling Cribbs & Funderburg recently when they start to bash the recent works of folks I admire like Terrence Malick, Andrea Arnold or Peter Greenaway – “Good. More for me!” Now that’s a quote I stole from Will Ferrell in Wedding Crashers but it applies to this situation so well.
I’m going through a similar situation right now with one of Spike Lee’s most recent films; Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus which some people bashed before they even saw it and in all honestly, it's pretty good. I'm using Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus as an example because it has quite a bit in common with Trouble Every Day. Both films were critically panned “anti-vampire” tales (basically Vampire movies without the sharp teeth) with elements of romance & sensuality sprinkled in. There are also hidden messages & sub-layers within the plots of both films that go way past the horror genre. Trouble Every Day is about the unhealthy side of desire. It's a play off of phrases like; “I love you do to death” or “oh my god you’re so cute I could just eat you up!” Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus touches on the wealth distribution in America between the 1% and the rest of the country.
It should also be noted that both films draw quite a bit from the previous film discussed in this year's auteur horror series. There’s an element of “cool” that both Trouble Every Day & Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus owe to The Addiction on a subconscious level. The same can be said about recent stuff like Only Lovers Left Alive & A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. It goes without saying that The Addiction is hardly the first “cool” “hip” vampire film, but Denis & Lee are connected to Abel Ferrara in a six degrees of separation kind of way unlike so many other filmmakers. Not only have all three directors spent time in the same New York City film scene, but between them they've worked with a lot of the same actors (Vincent Gallo, Paul Calderon, Giancarlo Esposito, Beatrice Dalle, etc). And the six degrees of separation only gets tighter if you throw Jim Jarmusch & Only Lovers Left Alive in to the mix.
It's my personal opinion that a lot of these aforementioned vampire films came out too soon or too late or were marketed towards the wrong audiences. The Addiction was released in the midst of one of Abel Ferrara's busiest & most obscure-ish periods so it's easy to get swallowed up between stuff like Dangerous Game & The Blackout. From what I saw, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus was geared towards older more traditional Spike Lee fans instead of - and I almost hate using this term but - the "alt-black" film crowd. Roll your eyes at that phrase all you want but Black audiences with a wider range of film knowledge & appreciation are way more prone to appreciate a film like Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus than those typical Spike Lee fans that are still hoping for another Do The Right Thing or Mo' Betta Blues.
Trouble Every Day's initial miss with both critics & audiences goes a little deeper...
It wasn't until a conversation with Chris Funderburg a few years ago that I realized Claire Denis may have self-sabotaged herself just by making Trouble Every Day. Her name certainly held some weight in the arthouse world since her directorial debut in 1989 but it really wasn't until she made Beau Travail in 1999 that people really took notice of her on a larger scale. Over night Beau Travail was on every "top 10" & "best of" list and it ended up on the covers of film comment & cahier du cinema (a French-based film publication that seemed to be lukewarm on Denis for her first four films). Claire Denis gained a wider audience with Beau Travail and instead of playing it safe by making a similar follow-up, she went and made a slightly alienating horror movie. Now there are certainly more alienating films than Trouble Every Day. This also wasn't the first time she got "down & dirty" (see: the murder of elderly women in I Can't Sleep & the cockfighting in No Fear No Die) but imagine having a somewhat meditative film like Beau Travail in your psyche then you're suddenly hit with a movie showing scenes of violent sex and vaginal biting. Trouble Every Day was also a little tough to "market" because there were two predominant languages spoke in the film rather than one (French & English) and it starred Vincent Gallo who had already gained a reputation for being very off-putting, sexist, racist & homophobic.
As Chris Funderburg put it - did Claire Denis not want all the Beau Travail attention so she went and alienated some of her new fans with her next film? I guess the positive aspect out of all of that is she weeded out some of the casual fans.
Could you imagine if a maverick female filmmaker like Claire Denis released Trouble Every Day in today’s climate of wanting more progressive & challenging female filmmakers? It would have been an immediate critical success just like A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Sure it would still be misunderstood & mislabeled by these Jezebel writers as a transgressive feminist answer to all the blahblahblah, but it would have still found the instant success that it deserved. No matter how much I want to believe that Claire Denis makes movies for me & me only, Trouble Every Day deserves an audience and people have finally come around to some degree. I'm just waiting for (sometimes) clueless critics like Leonard Maltin to change his tune and come around. When Trouble Every Day first came out he considered it to be a disaster. He even went so far as to not give it any stars but instead a clever "bomb" symbol. Ya know... to imply that the movie bombed?
But he went on to praise the score which, to me, is a contradiction as the Tinderstick's score for Trouble Every Day is an integral part of the film and the two kind of go hand in hand. It's music so you can obviously enjoy it separate from the film but this is one of the few cases where the music & film enhance each other instead of just the music enhancing the movie. And considering Leonard Maltin only heard the music through watching the film, I'm calling bullshit. If you like the music you should at least appreciate the film. But hey, he's just a "middle-brow critic" so his words can't be taken too seriously even though he critiques films like Trouble Every Day (I know it's a little pretentious to consider a film "highbrow" but Claire Denis' work is hardly low or middlebrow).*
But at this point in time I don't want a dweeb like Maltin to like Trouble Every Day. He had his chance to like it and he blew it. I'm more focused on the recent fans that seem to have suddenly discovered the brilliance of Claire Denis' misunderstood masterpiece.
Look… I’m honestly not throwing shots at anyone specific when I say what I’m about to say – I mean, I do like the fact that Claire Denis’ most misunderstood film has finally found a small audience - but am I the only one that has noticed a sudden rise of blog entries, essays & vampire-themed repertory programming at arthouse theaters that all seem to be centered around Trouble Every Day as soon as Pinnland Empire came along? Now Indiewire & The Playlist consider it one of the more overlooked horror films of the last decade and a few books on the New French Extremity (a French-based movie scene that Trouble Every Day is a part of) have surfaced in the last 5-6 years that focus in on Denis' film specifically.
Furthermore, Trouble Every Day used to be at 29% on rotten tomatoes back in 2010 and as soon as I started Pinnland Empire it has doubled in rating. I know that my not be saying much (it also sounds a little petty) and I know Pinnland Empire is just another film blog, but the evidence is just so obvious to me that I’ve played a minor part in this film’s surge in popularity. That’s a great thing. Having heard it directly from her mouth and the mouth of Alice “Nenette” Houri (who has an under-appreciated cameo towards the end of Trouble Every Day) – Claire Denis is genuinely surprised & appreciative when anyone (especially an American) knows about her work. It’s an honor as a true fan to help in any minor way possible to spread the word about her work no matter how much I want her all to myself.**
I think part of the reason that I want Claire Denis all to myself is because I arrogantly think I know her work better than most. There are obvious exceptions like Kent Jones, Amy Taubin and the two guys who run this very site, but generally speaking I do turn my nose up most reviews & essays on her work. Half of that is based out of irrational jealousy while the other half is based on common sense & rational critical thinking. Why is race & racial tension seldom discussed by critics when her work comes up outside of obvious stuff like White Material & Chocolat? If there is ever an example of (mostly white) critics ignoring race it’s the opinions I sometimes see on her work. It takes a special kind of white arrogance to write about Trouble Every Day, 35 Shots Of Rum, I Cant’s Sleep and/or No Fear No Die and not talk in depth about interracial romance, the idea of “Blackness” or the perception that some people have about stoic Black men (a prototype that so few black male actors portray like Denis regular Alex Descas).
Claire Denis’ exploration of race doesn’t seem phony because it isn’t the only thing she cares about. There are plenty examples where her films focus on predominantly white characters (Bastards, Friday Night, The Intruder, Nenette & Boni) so when she does delve in to race, Black manhood & interracial relationships it feels special.
I’m sorry but it isn’t a coincidence that Agnes Godard’s camera lingers closely in on the blended skin & intertwined bodies of our interracial couple in Trouble Every Day played by Alex Descas & Beatrice Dalle.*** And the contagious disease in the film originated in Africa.
I also feel protective of Claire Denis because in my own personal research, the horror element within Trouble Every Day is rarely discussed. I know it isn’t the most traditional horror film – especially by today’s standards of the handheld POV perspective/scary children with wet hair draped over their pale faces horror movies – but it does have some traditional horror movie tropes. Characters hiding in the shadows, gruesome murders, blood curdling screams, and lots of bloodshed. There's even a few on-the nose references to Nosferatu and all the scenes of Beatrice Dalle walking around with blood all over her clothes & face could easily have come out of a well-crafted Giallo movie.
But because this is a violent film directed by a women that's partially about a woman (Dalle) murdering men, people have to automatically go left and, like I said earlier, throw around terms like “feminist” and whatnot. I’m not opposed to Trouble Every Day being considered a “feminist horror film” (which some have done) as long as the reasons are well-thought out. But don’t dismiss & ignore other important elements that are right in your face. Like I said earlier in this piece, Trouble Every Day is a play off of phrases like; “I love you to death” For those of you that haven’t seen Trouble Every Day, the basic plot concerns a virus/disease (possibly contagious) that once caught, turns on the carrier’s cannibalistic instincts once he/she becomes horny and they feel the uncontrollable urge to eat their sexual partner (come to think of it, I’m surprised Trouble Every Day is almost never mentioned alongside the early works of David Cronenberg given the plot is very similar to films like Shivers & Rabid).
The reason I know Claire Denis drew inspiration from that particular quote is because she said it. I literally just looked up some interviews that she did a couple of years ago about her inspiration for Trouble Every Day and there it was in her own words in an audio excerpt. I don’t recall her ever saying Trouble Every Day was a feminist horror film or anything like that (although I could be wrong) yet you’d certainly think otherwise reading a lot of what people have to say about the film today. I’m not so pigheaded to see how people could think certain things about Trouble Every Day when it comes to gender and the relationships between men & women, but at least listen to what the Denis has to say about her own movie before jumping to your own projected conclusions (I'm guilty of that myself from time to time).
I'd like to see more in-depth talk about the connections between the contagious disease & sex. Is Trouble Every Day a slick comment on sexually transmitted diseases like Leos Carax's Bad Blood or Cronenberg's Shivers? I know we shouldn't always & automatically associate the continent of Africa & brown people with STD's but I do find it interesting that the contagious sex-based disease in the film did seem to originate in Africa.
As a horror movie Trouble Every Day definitely has the ability to make someone cover their eyes in fright or, at the very least, cringe in discomfort. So it's more than appropriate to highlight this movie during the Halloween season (if you don't at least look away for a brief moment during the scene involving genital mutilation/vaginal biting then something might seriously be wrong with you). Besides all the aforementioned films mentioned in this piece (The Addiction, Shivers, Rabid, Only Lovers Left Alive, Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus, etc), Trouble Every Day has various connections & similarities to everything from Gone Girl (I'm convinced someone on David Fincher's team got some visual inspiration from Denis) to Ginger Snaps (both films are shot similarly at times), so the potential audience for it is wider than one would think.
And I hope I don't sound too twisted but this also makes for a nice alternative Valentines Day movie in that some of the characters in the film show their true loyalty to their loved ones unlike a lot of characters do in sappy romcoms. I mean the last time I checked it takes tons of loyalty to hide the bodies of the victims murdered by your spouse.
~ OCTOBER 12, 2016 ~
* When Leonard Maltin appeared on Marc Maron's podcast a few years ago he labeled himself a "middlebrow critic". Whatever that means...
** Claire Denis is an award winning director who was considered the best director of the last decade by BFI so I don’t want it to sound like I think she’s some undiscovered up & comer. I could also be very delusional in thinking I had anything to so with people re-discovering Trouble Every Day.
*** This is the second time Descas & Dalle played a couple in a Claire Denis film. The first is I Can’t Sleep.