The Films of Claire Denis: Trouble Every Day (2001)


Imagine you are a filmmaker coming off the most well regarded film of your career. It’s the film that maybe you don’t realize now but will become what you’re best known. Regardless, the question that will be asked of you is “What’s next?” There’s two paths you can take. Do what’s expected of you, or continue to follow your muse?

This was the position Claire Denis found herself after the release of Beau Travail. How do you follow that film?  She could continue to make films exploring the effects of colonialism through the prism of modern France. It would likely continue to endear you to critics and fans but maybe not challenge you as a filmmaker. 

The other option would be to find new ways to tell those stories. Maybe lean harder into genre than you had previously. Take stock of current filmmaking in your home country and see if there’s something you can do with that. The result is Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, her seeming left turn from Beau Travail. The closest comparison would be Alfred Hitchcock following North by Northwest, the most Hitchcockian movie ever, with Psycho, the most violent and openly sexual of his career. A more recent example might be Luca Guadagnino following the sweet, yearning Call Me By Your Name with his brutal, hallucinatory Suspiria remake. It’s not unprecedented but few directors try it.

On the surface, Denis seems like a filmmaker chasing the then current trend that we now call New French Extremity. For anyone unaware, New French Extremity was a period in French cinema where filmmakers pushed the boundaries of sex and violence in their films, specifically horror films. Trouble Every Day certainly belongs in that category. It is, when it gets to that point, an extremely sexually violent and gory film. This is Denis fully engaging in the conventions of genre.

Except Trouble Every Day could only have been made by Denis. So many of her hallmarks remain in this film; images of water, deeply sensual physical contact, and even commentary on capitalism. Like her previous film Beau Travail, it’s a film fascinated by physical contact. Where Beau Travail is about the mysteries and beauty of humans interacting in physical spaces, Trouble Every Day is the opposite. This film concerns itself with the danger and terror of physical contact.

Claire Denis opens Trouble Every Day with a couple making out in a car. It starts as a deeply intimate moment, the two people probing each other’s bodies. It is familiar territory so far for a Denis movie. Soon though, their intimacy becomes more intense. Are they kissing each other or are they going to devour one another?  Denis loves to abstract forms into the sensual. Here though the sensual becomes dangerous. 

The film then follow two couples. The first is Dr. Leo Semaneau and his wife Coré. They live isolated in a massive home that looks decayed on the outskirts of Paris. During the day, Leo spends his time as a doctor and sees patients by appointment. At night though, he frequently cleans up bodies left by his wife. Coré, you see, is a cannibal with a voracious sexual appetite. She lures victims to their doom in the fields outside Paris. She’s a lioness hunting for prey and sexual satisfaction. Leo tries to lock her away but he’s rarely successful.

The scenes centering on Leo and Coré come straight out of a Gothic novel. Their home is old and crumbling. The husband traps his wife from the outside world. She is a dark secret he needs to protect from the world. Leo also fits the mold of a mad scientist. He has abandoned the world to dedicate his time to his clearly ill wife. He describes her to colleagues as “unwell” hence his move from research into the private sector. Experiments take place in their basement, possibly to cure Coré or at the least, manage her condition. 

Alex Descas portrays Leo as a husband dedicated to his wife, even if she is a monster. A scene early in the film has them kiss and become playful in bed before Leo realizes where this will go. He breaks it off even if she keeps trying to entice him. He’s seen where sex with her leads. After one rampage and as Coré asks to die, he lovingly wipes blood from her body with a sponge. It’s as much a way to destroy evidence as it is to engage in non-harmful physical contact.

Coré, as played by Béatrice Dalle, willingly indulges her desires. Her husband gives her pills, possibly to curb her urges. She rejects them. Her appetites, both sexual and carnivorous, must be met. In the film’s funniest scene, realizing her husband trapped her once again in their home, Coré pulls a power saw from under their bed to escape. Needs must be met. She visits the same places night after night, stalking her territory like an animal. Sex rarely has been portrayed this territorial.

The other couple we follow are newlyweds Dr. Shane and June Brown. Unlike Leo and Coré, the scenes between Shane and June only unravel their relationship. The couple look positively glowing in their scenes on the airplane to Paris. June assumes they’re traveling for their honeymoon. Shane travels for his own reasons. Hints something is off come early. Vincent Gallo’s Shane seems terrified of something every time he touches June. He hallucinates June covered in blood. When they have sex, he stops and runs to the bathroom to reach climax. Vincent Gallo, who already looks like a scumbag, carries an air of sleaziness wherever he goes. He looks at every woman both as a conquest and a meal. It’s clear Shane may share Coré’s compulsions.

Shane quickly reveals to June he came to Paris on “business”. The business seems to be finding Leo Semaneau. At first, it’s under the pretense of validating a paper Semaneau wrote. After meeting with a few of Semaneau’s former colleagues, two things get revealed; his peers considered whatever Semaneau worked on lunacy and that Shane may have appropriated this work for financial gain. Shane makes it clear that he likes making money. He remains predatory in everything he does. 

Denis never elaborates on whatever ailment that Coré and Shane share. There’s a few clues. Shane spent time with her and Leo in Guyana on a pharmaceutical project. A website mentions Leo’s work focused on mania as well as libido. It’s mentioned Shane had intense feelings for Coré. His new wife June even shares a resemblance to her. The two clearly shared something that made them this way.

Why they act this way though is less important than what it unleashes. Claire Denis clearly enjoys film genres even if she’s not interested in adhering to genre conventions. This is clearly a horror film even if it doesn’t function like a traditional horror film. Denis recognizes genre as an engine to explore larger ideas. 

How Coré and Shane approach their victims says so much about gender dynamics. Coré’s victims come to her willingly. It’s possible they simply see her as a sex worker. Maybe they just want what they think will be harmless, casual sex. Shane’s victims are less fortunate. Shane hunts his victims like a serial rapist. Throughout the movie, he keeps an eye on the young woman cleaning his room. When he finally corners her in a locker room while changing, her posture makes it clear it’s not the first time she’s been sexually assaulted. She’s more surprised and horrified when her assaulter starts eating her alive.

So much of this film is about consumption both literal and metaphorical. All of Shane and Coré’s victims are working class people while it’s implied that the Browns and Semaneau’s are more upper class. These working class people we see  constantly steal or plot to steal from the people that will eventually eat them alive. Two young men who live across from the Semaneaus think there’s a fortune waiting in the house for them to ransack. All that awaits them is Coré’s voracious appetites. The young woman who Shane eventually murders steals small items from guests and the hotel. She takes cigarette breaks in guests rooms possibly imagining what it would be like to actually stay in a hotel like this. It’s as Denis says capitalism is it’s own form of cannibalism.

It would be easy to say Trouble Every Day lives in the shadow of a film like Denis’ previous film Beau Travail. This film is everything that film is not. This is a horrifying and gruesome piece of genre filmmaking where Beau Travail is beautiful and mesmerizing. Every touch and physical interaction carries with it a tension, from each caress between lovers to a scientist cutting up specimens. Watching the two films back to back, a viewer might ask why did Claire Denis make something so ugly?

What would be more accurate is to say though is that Trouble Every Day is the shadow self to Beau Travail. Denis had to make an opposite for her to move forward as an artist. She explores the darkness in the trademarks of her films. It’s not as if darkness and ugliness weren’t in her films previously. Trouble Every Day simply makes that subtext text to horrifying extremes.

Trouble Every Day deserves to be mentioned among Claire Denis’ best films. While purposely abrasive, especially compared to her previous film Beau Travail, the film might have some of her most trenchant commentary on class and capitalism. While it features some of her goriest imagery, that imagery exists in service to larger ideas. It’s like Claire Denis wanted to tell her audience and critics she could find the same power in ugliness that she found in beauty.

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