Monday, October 19, 2009

Female European Directors: Trouble Every Day (2001)

Trouble Every Day (2001, Claire Denis)

With Trouble Every Day Claire Denis tried her hand in the horror genre. In truth, like the best of horror films, hers has much more going for it than pure scares or gore. Looking back, there weren’t many scares save for a few tense moments, but word of advice: what gore that does appear is rather unsettling. The characters at the center of the plot carry a lot of emotional weight, lending the story a gravitas all too difficult to find in horror films by and large. The main characters here come in two pairs. More specifically, they come in two married couples. One is American, made up of newly weds Shane and June (Vinent Gallo and Tricia Vessey) traveling to Paris for their honeymoon. We first meet them on the plane before they land in the city of lights in a scene which perfectly sets up two things. First, the love each other dearly and second, that Shane may not be 100 percent healthy. Something is ailing him, although the film does not explicitly say what at this point (a few interspersed scenes show Shane visiting a high-tech medical clinic specialized in research on the libido). The other couple introduced early on is that of Léo and Coré, a French couple living in Paris. The film also does an admirable job at showing how their marriage is anything but healthy. In absolutely brutal fashion, we discover that Coré is terribly ill, mentally that is, and that she has a thirst for inhumane mayhem, as in mutilating the bodies of men after having seduced them into having sex with her. Rather than give up on her, Léo, a doctor performing research on human libido (of the same kind we witness in some of the Shane scenes), works tirelessly to hide her from the authorities, and to protect the outside world from her. He attempts to wash away whatever evidence at the scene of the crimes may lead to her identity and subsequently stores her away in a locked room in their home. Much to Léo’s dismay, Coré is a shadow of her former self. Afflicted with such a grave illness, Coré is an evil witch. The stories of these two couples are told mostly separately, but eventually converge with the discovery that there is in fact a link between Shane and Coré.

Trouble Every Day
is, in this reviewer’s opinion, a hidden gem of modern French cinéma and particularly of the horror genre. With films such as Beau Travail and Vendredi Soir, Claire Denis showed that she has an intuitive understanding of character, motivation, and the emotions that propel people forward (or backward, whatever the case may be). Demonstrating that same kind of finesse with material such as this, which can easily be viewed as off-putting to say the least, is an accomplishment that deserves respect. Both thematically and in relation to its plot, Trouble Every Day is very murky and a challenge to take in. My first reaction to the film, despite being overall fairly positive, was still a bit reserved. Many of the ideas, some of which became clearer (somewhat) to me later, were overshadowed by a rather cold, detached and dark mood which hid them. It was only upon further reflection that my appreciation of the film blossomed. Of the two parallel storylines taking place, I took a great liking to that which involved Léo and Coré. On the one hand, it is horrifying to the utmost degree. This woman, whom we are expected to believe was at some in the past ‘normal’ since Léo is married to her after all, is a human demon. Her mental illness has corrupted all regular behaviour that could be expected from a person. Her former self has withered away entirely and in its place is a sexually charged man ripping machine. On the other hand however, I find this tale deeply saddening. The source of this emotive response rests in the acceptance that Coré was indeed another person in the past, that is, a loving wife. This is reinforced by Léo’s presence and his determination in not only protecting her, but also in trying find any kind of cure to what ails her. He is the backbone of this storyline despite Alex Descas’ limited screen time. His reasons for locking his wife in a bedroom are justified given the peculiar circumstances. She is a terrible danger to society and even to Léo himself when she can’t control her animalistic impulses, which is most of the time. Ask anybody around and they will cry foul. Coré is a menace and requires intensive medical care…possibly locked up in a mental institute. Léo will have none of that business. His wife is indeed ‘locked up’, but in his home. Whatever frustrations and depression Léo is suffering through, it must be out of love.

Thematically, Trouble Every Day is as complex as some of the murder scenes are intense. At this point in her career, Denis had clearly demonstrated that she was far more clever a director than one who would put to screen a schlock horror film, no matter how slick or gritty. This is where one can get into trouble, no pun intended. This isn’t an easy movie to assess due to its very austere qualities, its dark tone and its cerebral yet ambiguous themes. By the end, when Shane and Coré have had their fateful encounter, what is it exactly that we have watched? Violence and sex rolled into one… didn’t we just complete a marathon about that stuff? Denis’ film does call for comparisons to some of David Cronenberg’s work, such as Rabid, in which sex is provided a particularly evil face. In real life, sex can be violent and dangerous physically, emotionally and psychologically, when the wrong emotions are involved. Trouble Every Day takes that to another level entirely. The two characters who suffer from this bizarre illness, Shane and Coré, have lost control, giving way for their violent impulses to overcome whatever logic or conscious that, under any other circumstances, would dictate them to hold back.

The act of sex is special in how it stimulates our bodies and our senses like few other activities can. The pleasure attained through sex simply cannot be compared to anything else. How curious is it then that the movie has sex so closely associated with pain and ultimately death. Pleasure and pain are stimulations that we have discussed on previous occasions during the Cronenberg marathon. The sick people in this film are taking away from their victims the luxury of pleasure through brutal murder just they said victims are in fact experiencing that special pleasure. It makes for a horribly cruel twist of fate for the sorry saps who are suckered into having intercourse with either Shane or Coré, both villains despite themselves. Coré and Shane are sexual predators. Granted, it isn’t as if they have any kind of choice (‘choice’ in the sense that is widely accepted). The film isn’t any of kind of symbolic apology for that kind of criminal, but I find it unique that these two antagonists are as far removed from the stereotypical views we have of sexual predators. Sex and violence are prominent facets in popular culture around the world, especially in Western culture (which has been successfully exported to many other cultures around the globe). Denis literally combines these two facets into one. With Coré and Shane, there can be no sex without violence and death. It’s an extreme vision to be sure, but a decent challenge presented to the viewers. As some readers may begin to tell, I’m still wrestling with this movie. Maybe it’s a commentary on sexual promiscuity (which crossed my mind at one point). Then again, maybe it has something to say about how we, civilians living in the West, have an obsession with our bodies and more specifically our physical appearance to others and the subsequent anxieties which stem from such preoccupations. Denis, in her own existensial way, is saying how we need to ‘destroy’ the perfect body (our aspirations to earn the ‘perfect’ body as well) and relieve ourselves from sexual stereotypes which only add pressure on so many. I’m rambling obviously, but that’s how I find the movie simultaneously fascinating and confusing.

Vincent Gallo is one of those actors people love or hate. His voice, demeanour and acting style are very unique, and while I cannot say that he is an actor who gets me excited to see movies, he fills the role of the deeply troubled Shane very well. Because his character doesn’t appear as damaged as Coré (who comes off as a complete nut job), there is often a hint of emotion and vulnerability in the actor’s performance. But when we’ve seen him be normal for a few moments, the viewer then discovers a look in his eyes that immediately hints that something very wrong and strange is brewing in that mind. I very much enjoyed Gallo’s effort overall. Alex Descas, who has worked with director Claire Denis on more than on occasion, doesn’t get as much screen time as I would like, but he always has a presence about him that brings some class and gravitas to whatever scene he is featured in. He is another actor who can do a lot with his eyes (is it not said that much of acting is about what an actor can do with their eyes?). Béatrice Dalle as Coré is…sufficiently insane. The odd one out for me is Tricia Vessey who plays Gallo’s wife in the film. It’s a fine performance, but of the four leads, her performance wasn’t the one I was thinking about when the movie was over.

So there’s a little bit of a Halloween special for you. I figured I couldn’t go through the month of October without any sort of acknowledgment of the day, but I didn’t want to cheat the spirit of the marathon either. Coré and Shane are a bit like vampires, only they prefer leaving their victims in pools of blood with bits of flesh instead two perfect little holes.

Merry Halloween and Happy Fall!

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