Claire Denis isn’t generally ranked amongst horror’s foremost auteurs, but if she were to be judged solely on the basis of her overlooked (yes) masterpiece from 2001, Trouble Every Day she’d far outshine the competition. Even if I Can’t Sleep flirted with amorphously terrifying serial killer hysteria, and No Fear, No Die’s cockfighting sequences were marked by a filmmaking intensity that her cool elliptical sensibilities generally seemed to belie, Trouble Every Day seems almost to spring from nowhere. Almost. Her previous film, Beau travail, though far from horrific or scary, mounts an impressive desert-bound dread that explodes in the pure catharsis of its final dance sequences. If horror filmmaking need succeed at anything, it’s not in the creative application of plasticine gores or twisted pretzel-logic murder sprees, but in simply, effectively building and releasing tension. And it’s in Beau travail where Denis announces herself master of this simple, yet elusive function.
So what’s scary about Trouble Every Day? Basically, everything. Denis keeps audiences almost completely in the dark about the scientific experiment gone awry that’s mutated the sexuality of leads Vincent Gallo and Beatrice Dalle, and the weight of potentially awful happenings hangs heavy over the film—what is Dalle up to that forces her husband (Alex Descas) to nail her door shut? Why is it that Gallo, in wintry Paris for his honeymoon, cannot consummate with his young bride (Tricia Vessey), in one startling sequence initiating sex only to run into the bathroom in terror to masturbate? At this point in her career, the building blocks of narrative are merely her playthings—she can do what she likes with her captive audience as a result. Unlike real science fiction, Denis isn’t interested in explaining the specifics, which only opens up room for horror to crowd in once the blood starts to flow.
Which it does, and in grand fashion. Prior to the massive bloodletting at its core, the film’s color palette is largely muted—grey skies, coats, rooms. Think of that signature image of Gallo on his hotel balcony: he’s so ashen he almost dissolves into the twin grays of his peacoat and the stone gargoyle he’s standing in front of. Contrast that to Dalle, soaked in blood head to toe from literally devouring an unsuspecting gentleman caller, prancing through the most beautiful sexual carnage on celluloid, idly tracing her hand through blood. It terrifies not only because the Grand Guignol portrait is painted so seductively but also because of the raw sexuality that led to it—who hasn’t wanted the heat of passion that makes one want to consume their partner? Same goes for Gallo’s deadly cunnilingus performed later in the film. What begins as the kind of abrupt sexual courtship between strangers not altogether unheard of in French cinema ends with unholy shrieks and a pool of blood. (Hopefully the orgasm was a good one.)
To be sure, this is horror for the art-house set, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily an impenetrable experience for those weaned on the more hyperkinetic multiplex scare. Denis, one of the few filmmakers working who is in full command of the seductive power of great images paired with the right sounds, might just be able to play to the cheap seats.Jonathan Rosenbaum opined about her equally as assured 2004 feature L’Intrus, “Like many other films by the gifted and original Claire Denis, this ambitious and mysterious 2004 French feature is something I admire without especially liking.” I wonder what he thought of Trouble Every Day, but there’s no review on the Reader site to suggest an answer. Saying one “likes” Trouble Every Day may be to align oneself with the forces of darkness, but fuck it—this is Halloween after all.