a mini-Denis festival starting this weekend. I got to talk briefly about Trouble Every Day with Ms. Denis when I interviewed her about Bastards for the Georgia Straight; I had no idea that conversation would be germaine so soon, so it made a handy Movie Note, which you can find in today's Straight.
FIST 336 final assignment: rewrite
April 10, 2012
Horror Beneath the Surface: Trouble Every Day
The opening scene of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day - of a young couple kissing in a car - is provocative precisely because it appears on first glance to have no bearing on the narrative that follows. The young man and woman do not appear again, and the gentle, consensual eroticism of their embrace stands in marked contrast to the film’s later scenes of predatory and murderous sexuality. Further, the genre cues are all wrong; the scene suggests - along with images of shimmering lights reflected on the surface of a Paris canal and the seductive, soothing music of Tindersticks - that this is the beginning of a love story, not a horror film in the mode of New French Extremism. Given the film’s title, which arrives presently, shimmering like the surface of the water (and also present in the lyrics of the Tindersticks’ song), viewers might assume that we are seeing, in the kissing couple, more what is “every day” than “troubled” - though we may naturally wonder where the trouble, exactly, lies. What we are being offered here is, in fact, a surface (like that of the water) which we might inquire beneath. Once we start looking for it, we may find that even this “normal” sensuality between the couple contains within it elements that are troubling, if nowhere as extreme as the psychosexual disturbances still in store.
First and most obviously, the kissing couple cues us to be conscious of the oral elements of eroticism. Both Coré and Shane, later in the film, will make ferocious biting gestures when aroused, and appear to “eat” the object of their desire (note here that the Italian title for Trouble Every Day is the rather garish Cannibal Love - a title that would make more sense for a film by Ruggero Deodato than Claire Denis, but which definitely connects to the film’s more extreme images). Oral sadism - the desire to bite, as an aspect of eroticism - is hardly an unknown phenomenon; the film, at its most savage, merely exaggerates the impulse, sets it free from any considerations of safety or consent. Even in this opening kiss, there is a hunger visible - particularly on the part of the young man, who is slightly more aggressive than the female. Perhaps any passionate kiss contains an element of the desire to devour, even if this desire is normally held in check.
The power relations implied in the way Denis stages the scene are also worth noting. The female is beneath the male, her throat exposed and vulnerable; there is a look of trust and assent on her face, but also a passivity - she is the kissed, he the kisser. This relationship, the female as the object of male sexual desire, is mirrored formally: the woman is the primary focus of the camera, which looks down on her, making her the viewer’s object; she receives our gaze much as she receives the kiss. There is a power relationship present here, which the film subtly queries, in part by the disconcerting nature of the camera gaze: there is a tenderness and passion in this kiss that is unusual in any form of cinema, and we may feel ourselves intruders in a private moment, placed in an uncomfortable position from which to look. The film will lead us to even more “troubled looking” later, when the camera serves as a cipher for Shane’s gaze as he “stalks” the maid at the hotel, but even this opening scene raises questions of how cinema participates in normal male-female power relations, and suggests that aspects of this state of normalcy (for instance, the dominance of the male gaze) may in fact be problematic.
The next sequence of the film greatly develops this, showing Denis playing with and subverting power relations between men and women, with much emphasis on looking. Coré as woman-in-distress and sexual object is the recipient of the trucker’s gaze, and initially might seem a potential victim. This scene has parallels with the hitchhiking scene in David Cronenberg’s Rabid, but unlike that film, we do not know from the outset that it is the woman who is the source of the threat. Denis’ ensures that we are aware of the intimidating power of the truck (and thus the trucker) by having her camera track towards it as it backs up - a disorienting shot, since we are not sure what is moving towards what, prefiguring the unseen “collision” that is to take place between Coré and the man. The only cue we are offered that the relationship of power here is not as we may assume is the close-up of Coré’s face, as the trucker gets down and walks towards her. Her face is huge in comparison to the rather small image of the man, her eyes betray no fear or vulnerability, and her bemused, somewhat cruel smile suggests she knows something that we - and the trucker - do not. If “normal” sexual relationships in the film involve both repression of ones most primal urges and the dominance of the female by the male, Coré’s function is to provide a contrast, a point of rebellion: her very nature, as we will see, is to break free of the constraints placed upon her, to act out the impulses that Shane tries to repress, and even - in apparently smearing the blood of one of her later victims on the walls of her attic prison - to make a sort of art out of them.
A growing sense of wrongness pervades the next two scenes of the film - Leo’s
“rescue” of Coré and Shane’s bloody fantasy in the airplane bathroom, though part of what is most disturbing about both sequences is the way in which both Leo and Shane react; both men are shown accepting as normal what in fact is anything but, continuing the film’s query of what we accept as everyday. When Leo finds Coré, he responds as if it is a normal thing for a man to find his lover in a field next to a half-naked male body. Further, Leo treats Coré as the victim, tenderly wiping the blood off her face and kissing her protectively, contradicting the viewer’s sense of what has transpired and our idea of what a rational reaction might entail. His calmness in taking care of Coré suggests he has found her in similar circumstances before, that he accepts that these are the conditions of his relationship with her. This is quite disconcerting on first viewing: what relationship could possibly explain a sense of normality that allows for ones lover to do things like this?
Similarly, Shane’s reaction to thoughts of his young bride covered in blood also suggests that, however disturbed his fantasy may seem, it is part of the everyday conditions of his existence; he may not welcome these thoughts, but he has had them, one feels, many times before. More disturbingly, there is the sense that the images he has of June - spattered in blood, her hand reaching toward him - are images of desire, rather than (as might seem more reasonable) neurotic, unwanted intrusions from the subconscious. To confirm this, Denis allows for not one but two fantasy images of June’s bloody face smiling at the camera, her eyes meeting Shane’s (and our) gaze. As in pornography, there is the sense that, in Shane’s fantasy, she desires what he desires of her, however unlikely this may be in reality.
The sense that something is very, very wrong between the men and women in this film becomes a driving force in the narrative that follows: a sense of a disordered universe has been created, which we hope the film will set right. This, it develops, is Shane’s purpose; in trying to find Coré and Leo, he hopes to find a cure for his condition, so he can restore order and finally consummate his relationship with June. He becomes our primary source of identification in the film, the character whose actions propel the narrative, the “hero.” Yet even as the film begins to partake of elements of genre - the “scientific thriller” - the sense that Shane’s dilemma has a bearing on everyday human life never entirely vanishes. Shane telling his bride that he would never hurt her, striving to control and channel his aggressive and sexual impulses, feeling inner conflict about communicating his desires, making apologetic-cum-manipulative gestures for his failings like buying June a puppy, and ultimately being more comfortable enacting some of his fantasies with a stranger, are all recognizable male behaviours, even if the actual manifestation of Shane’s desires are more extreme than one usually finds (many men have likely had sexual trysts with hotel staff that proved non-fatal for either party). It is quite possible for a male viewer (at the very least, the present author) to recognize Shane’s plight and to read it as a commentary on what being a man in contemporary society entails.
Of course, Shane ultimately fails in his quest. When, at the conclusion of the film, he says to June, “I want to go home,” there is the suggestion that, in lieu of a cure, he has settled on a compromise (occasionally “eating” women other than his wife, and continuing to protect her from his true nature). This suggests that the institution of “home” itself is rife with such tensions and compromises, and that if we look beneath its surface, we will find it fraught with danger, aberrant desires and hypocrisy. If there is any hope at all in the film’s final moments, it is that June appears to realize some of this, as she sees the blood running down the shower curtain when she embraces Shane. Her wide open eyes, in the film’s final shot, in fact bring to mind Coré’s eyes, as she watches the trucker approach, suggesting at least a potential empowerment of the female gaze - though June seems nowhere near Coré’s equal.
The real tragedy of Trouble Every Day is not, however, that Shane and June will likely return home with no real solution to their problem at all, but that Coré, the artist, the figure who rejects what is “normal,” breaks down barriers, and subverts power relationships in favour of what is expressive and authentic, regardless of the consequences, must ultimately be destroyed so that “normalcy,” such as it is, can triumph. In a way, she seems the most honest character in the film - though she is also the furthest from normal, which says something.