Trouble Every Day is Claire Denis's most disliked film. Even among her ardent fans, the feature is often seen as something of a failure (unless, of course, they happen to be one of the movie's few, fervent supporters). I, however, fall somewhere in the middle; I acknowledge its many flaws, but can't shake its haunting visuals. I'm consistently drawn to this bold material: an erotic parable which imagines a world where a certain group of afflicted individuals engage in sex as foreplay to violence; a predatory process which awakens in them an intense primal urge to attack and kill their partner (taking rough sex to a whole new level).
The idea for the film began with a nightmare the director had when she was a child, wherein her mother's goodnight kisses morphed into vicious bites. This concept — the fine line between lip and tooth — manifests itself right at the outset, when a couple is seen making out in their car, scored by Stuart Staples' (of Tinder Sticks) tension-racked orchestration, establishing dread and suspense that would normally give way to some kind of brutal action. But this is not a traditional horror movie, and such violence doesn't take place at this time. Denis understands that patience is a bedfellow of suspense, and fulfillment comes later.
While making a short film in New York City, a friend of hers in the industry asked Denis if she might be interested in making a genre film. Her response, many years later, is Trouble Every Day, which is in many ways not a genre film at all. It bears resemblance to various vampire movies, and the director claims that she's always been interested by that particular creature's mythology, but she hesitates to count her film among those that explore it. And understandably so; there's a brutality of an entirely different persuasion in Trouble Every Day. Sucking blood is not so much the motivation here; instead, the afflicted are prone to ravaging the bodies of their prey with a primal urgency, spattering the screen with blood. Not gore, however, which is an important point to make, as Denis claims (and I'm inclined to agree). The director makes no apologies for the blood in her films, but she insists that there is no gore, and that the term implies a certain "nihilism" which her film does not posses.
At first, "nihilistic" struck me as an accurate way to describe Trouble Every Day, as its bleak vision of an alienated people living with very little hope of a normal life suggests. But, upon further examination, to designate it at such is to overlook the love shared between these characters. Core (Beatrice Dalle), for instance, is possessed by this bizarre malady and cared for by her handler, Leo (Alex Descas), who's also her husband. The heartless way in which Leo unleashes his wife on unsuspecting victims (a chilling introduction to both characters) is given further dimension through an undercurrent of melancholy, evidenced by regret written all over Descas' face. Leo is not an evil man; he's a desperate one, obligated to carry out this horrifying procedure to keep his wife alive. Similarly, the relationship between the infected Shane (tall, dark and creepy Vince Gallo) and his new wife June (Tricia Vessey) is one of great affection, and their on-screen romance contrasts that of Leo and Core. The latter two find themselves disassociated from each other, accepting the inevitability of their circumstance, and living selfishly. Shane, on the other hand, represses his violent urges, and fights his condition in hopes that he can have a normal life with his partner.
Much of the film is devoid of dialog, as is the case with many Denis films, placing emphasis on tone and atmosphere — again, nothing new for those familiar with the director's unique brand of storytelling. But, unlike Denis's best films (Beau Travail, The Intruder), the plot which emerges here is needlessly confusing and distracting: something involving Leo (who's apparently a scientist of some kind), his involvement with Shane, and the research both have done in effort to cure this debilitating disease. The specifics are left vague, and an attempt to establish a preexisting relationship between Shane and Leo's wife, Core (they were perhaps once lovers) is headache-inducing. And yet, as much as this unintelligible plot does serve to dilute the purity of Denis's visceral cautionary tale — one far more chilling than, say, Basic Instinct – it's the intrigue this concept commands that makes the film compelling.
Emotionally charged sequences, shot sublimely by the reliably brilliant cinematographer Agnes Godard, burn into the memory. These include basically every tense moment and longing glance shared between Shane and June, who yearn to connect with each other so completely that Shane occasionally forgoes caution, and gives in to temptation; only to be stifled by a mark on June's shoulder, reminding him of past transgressions and of his own limitations. Scenes like this perfectly encapsulate Denis's thematic concern — dangerous love. As such, Trouble Every Day becomes so much more than a "hysterical yet humorless disquisition on the thin line between sucking face and literally sucking face," as one critic naively has described it. It's a movie which concerns itself with the relationship between allure and danger, asserting its theme forcibly, with every lustful glance and pining gesture. Some may find this approach too subtle, preferring that the director lecture us and present us with some kind of metaphorical iteration (a filmmaker less trusting of their audience may slap on a narration to drive the point home, something like, "a rose is gorgeous, but it has thorns").
Trouble Every Day is all about inaction, and so most horror enthusiasts will likely be repelled by the quiet moments, which make up the majority of its runtime. However, this sparseness is necessary, as it enables the two instances in which violence does take place on screen to be all the more jarring. Both these sequences are nearly unwatchable in their unrelenting brutality, and will likely disturb the viewer more than anything that, say, the Saw franchise has to offer. Which is why, thankfully, they are used sparingly — as exclamation marks, not sentences — and so I find them to be necessary evils that elicit the reaction required to understand this particular piece of art on its own terms. They're not entertaining or even titillating (both take place during sex). They're sadistic, but they serve a purpose: cautioning the fulfillment of lustful desire.
An agreeable tone is established early on, and the movie effortlessly coasts by for much of its duration. Staples' soaring strings, tapping percussion and shakers score panning shots of skin, photographed by Godard like the rosiest of apples; as seductive to the viewer as to predators like Shane and Core. Like many of Denis's films — though, admittedly, more fascinating here than anywhere else in her oeuvre — the role that skin plays is intrinsic to the narrative. Not only is it shot to look delectable and inviting, but it's treated as delicate and easily damaged; the thin layer of protective coating separating the afflicted from their sustenance. In fact, the film's power of suggestion, and its effectiveness as an allegory, make it hard to admit its many and glaring flaws.
At its least effective, Trouble Every Day feels over-thought (not a common attribute of a Denis work), and far too literal (ditto). The worst scenes tend to involve Leo and his many bizarre experiments. When the plot shifts into mystery/procedural territory towards the end of the second act, its overly scientific preoccupations (talk of neurological disorders and brain samples in Petri dishes) fly in the face of the narrative's more naturalistic progression, and the almost innate, animalistic behaviors of these characters. It's occurred to me that Denis may be trying to make some kind of statement on the futility of man-made serums and scientific solutions in combating basic human nature, but if that is the case, her argument is both vague and abstract.
Despite all of this, Denis overcomes, and delivers a thesis both controversial and undeniably thought-provoking: the director posits that all desire — sexual, violent, or otherwise — is intrinsically linked. Just as blood and skin are the same (part of our DNA), carnal urges are equivalent to violent urges, and the two exist on the same plane of fulfillment. The separation, essentially, is defined by an individual's own ability to control their actions in the heat of the moment. It's a theory which virtually no "genre" films would have the audacity to suggest, and I can think of few concepts more terrifying.