Trouble Every Day: sex, violence, malaise

Film auteur Claire Denis may be most famous and well-lauded for 1999’s Beau Travail, among the many of her crowning achievements, but opinions of her divide over a work such as 2001’s Trouble Every Day. Defying genre, Trouble Every Day is, at its baseline, a surreal, erotic, and gruesome study into sexual tension, scoptophilia, and violence. It is intense, raw, and unforgiving in its visualization. That being said, it holds much more than its surface appearance which largely consists of canvases of flesh, a few notable bloody sexual encounters, and flat protagonists with minimal dialogue wandering the film’s Parisian settings in ennui.

It may sound as if there’s a tone of disparagement in writing this. It’s hard to necessarily recommend a film so centered on its moments of triggering intensity. In the present-day world, its transgressive nature might be looked upon as downright extra in light of a greater awareness and sensitivity to sexual trauma. The film, however, was in line with an interesting phenomenon of similar-themed French films in the early 2000s, and is a telling cultural artifact of that era. Critic James Quandt, seeing the patterns in these remarkable films, was the first to coin the phrase “New French Extremity” as their categorized moniker, and there is much critical study surrounding them. Critical understanding aside, and for those willing viewers, the film does have its merits and powerful caveats as a beatific and poetic treatise on the beauty of sex and sensuality contrasted with the lurking shadow self of horror and violence that can sour it.

The plot is as vague and poorly comprised as the flimsy constructions of pornography and B-horror narrative which inspire it. A pharmacologist, Dr. Shane Brown, and his wife June go to Paris for their honeymoon. For Dr. Brown the trip holds another motive: to find former co-worker Dr. Léo Sémeneau and his wife, Coré, who Dr. Brown was once attracted to. The sub-plot of this arc follows the average work life of a hotel maid, Christelle, who Dr. Brown notices and will, by film’s end, have a dramatically violent rape encounter. Paralleling this plot is Dr. Léo Sémeneau who is, ousted by the medical community for ethically questionable research, now a provincial doctor. His wife, extremely unwell, must be kept locked away in a room as she often finds ways to escape in order to lure men into sleeping with her and killing them. Repeatedly, Dr. Léo must recapture her and lock her up. Within this arc is its own sub-plot of two neighboring men who, when the doctor leaves for work, attempt to break in, and engage with the locked-away wife. Eventually they do, and one of them experiences a deadly love-making session with her.

It is intense, raw, and unforgiving in its visualization.

Both plots contrast and play off each other in mimicking reflections, main protagonists Dr. Brown in one and Coré in the other. But the slow-paced narrative is an aside under Denis’ vision where anxious tension may in fact be the overwhelming charge here: a breath-clenching force that oscillates between brief moments of beauty followed by precisely timed acts of abject terror. A scene early on in the hotel room, between Christelle and Dr. Brown, tightens the chest to feel their pheromone attraction. In just a few shots, Denis crafts a set-up of light sensual play that will eventually become an interaction of horrific proportions as, later, Dr. Brown chews at her genitalia and kills her. Scenes of bodies in the act of love-making, skin like a canvas, the camera gliding in close over arms and legs and back, are juxtaposed with the brute violence of skin broken and bleeding. Coré’s final sexual act with the neighbor ends in a feast upon his body like a flesh-eating zombie, chewing at his face and shoulders. The intertwining of sex and violence profoundly disturbs. Penetration, the parting of skin in a sexual act, is here overlaid with the breaking of skin in an act of violence; soft flesh and intimacy is held against extreme bloody portrayals of flesh broken and blood pouring out. Given the long moments of quietude and nothingness, these acts gain even more shock and discomfort as they arrive like a blitzkrieg, and leave us drifting in their destruction.

But why all this violence and sex? Here, several basic critical interpretations should be noted. As a centerpiece, Dr. Brown becomes a living breathing result of a masculinity informed by the transactional nature of pornography, often favoring of male domination and constant carouseling through bodies, a taking in and throwing away. With this, he carries the behavioral code embedded by the pathology of consumerism. His actions reveal this often in the form of betrayals and deceptions he commits. Right from his introduction, Brown a seemingly innocent and quiet person relates to June how happy he is, and is quickly shown to be a more sinister force. Minutes in, he goes to the bathroom and envisions a scene of his wife in drenched sheets of blood. That symbolic vision sets the template of the acts of betrayal that span the rest of his narrative. Several times, he perversely brushes up against or clutches women in public spaces. His honeymoon is, in fact, a complete ruse when he betrays his wife to search for Dr. Léo, and fulfill some obsession with Coré. In another scene, rather than completing sex with his wife, he runs into a bathroom and masturbates, suggesting a pronounced selfishness and lack of intimacy. His final encounter with Christelle is a gruesome rape that borders on the actions of a serial killer.

From the other arc, right at the film’s beginning, Coré is shown almost as a wild beast, having to be locked up, enraged and tormented. Imagery abounds here: a woman held back by a patriarchy that creates pedestal versions of women designed by its male fantasy. Her entrapment is clear. Regardless of Dr. Léo’s intentions, she is bound, literally and figuratively, by his vision of what he wants her to be, which from one angle seems simply to be better and well. From a literal standpoint, it seems just as, left alone and free, her actions are deadly. But it quickly becomes a question of how she got to be the way she is in the first place. Is her entrapment part of the cause? Are her lashings-out and unwellness linked to the very design of Dr. Léo keeping her caged, as if she is herself an experiment of his making?

… anxious tension may in fact be the overwhelming charge here…

Coré becomes a source of revenge to the pedestal paradigm, a kind of prophetic reaction to the wrong-coursed minds keen on designing the perfect girl. Further, she is a mirror reaction to those of lust, selfishness, and male-centered pleasure bereft of love or concern. What they desire is what they get; or, even more so, as they desire to consume her body so shall she consume theirs. Another implied undercurrent takes form, and that is that Dr. Brown and Coré have had a previous history together. One possible conclusion might be that she has suffered at the hands of Dr. Brown, leading to her trauma and unwellness. Either way, she is a reactionary force to male dominators who have formed her jailed existence. In any case, Denis’ choice imagery abounds in these sorts of unfoldings and deeper layers, and one way to engage the film is more as a series of sensual paintings, a visual poem infused with sexual and political commentary.

Beyond what might be the initial interpretations lie other depths. Of course, orgasm and its post-sensation linked to dying, la petite mort. Certainly the film’s moments of cloudy malaise are akin to orgasm’s refractory period, as if everyone is drifting in post-sex, anticipating desire’s return. Difficult, then, to overlook the malaise commanding a large portion of screen time. From the Browns’ hotel room check-in, feeling more like an unnecessary aside, to Dr. Brown’s laying in bed and smoking or looking out the window, on his laptop doing work, there’s a constant drifting away and extreme ennui in his habits. The maid Christelle dresses and undresses for work in her locker room, cleans herself, and goes around the hotel pilfering small goods as she fixes up the bedrooms. It is a sort of day-in-life kind of examination, fit for a realist Marxist portrayal of the proletariat forced into a meaningless cyclical existence. The two neighbors outside of Dr. Léo’s house smoke all day and watch for him to leave in order to see if they can break in, their lives little more than horny intruders. Further, it is often curious what June does with herself as her tasks are reduced to taking baths, wandering the streets, or looking for her husband. Beyond malaise, it is the banal actions of these individuals that further their flat affectations and reduce them to the purest of material instincts, people who live on stimulus and little else.

…a series of sensual paintings, a visual poem infused with sexual and political commentary.

Lending hand to that materiality are the several long segments of scientists in Dr. Léo’s former lab job, cutting into brains, using microscopes, and dealing with other scientific tasks. Such scenes visually fortify the clinical overtones of characters deeply vacant of tenderness or feeling, who are so flattened as to become like avatars for animalistic sexual desires, as if lab rats prodded and trained by various stimuli. The film’s scientific aspects, more than simply references to the mad scientists of classic campy horror, become a self-reflexive critique of the film itself and its treatment of sex: the cold and chilling calculations of a seemingly amoral and objective science are applied to the workings of sex and vanquished are the ethereal heart and feeling so surrounding the act.

It is ironic, then, that what bears the closest thing to emotion is the violence of sexual encounters: there is an almost self-flagellation inherent in such forms of violence. The violence becomes itself a confirmation of a deep guilt and suffering within sex under male-centeredness. The sole cries of victims are like a voice from deep in a dry well, yelling for anyone to notice what’s going on here. The bright and bold reds of gallons of blood, Denis’ nod to slasher horror’s gore porn, is maybe the only thing fit to wake one out of the blunting malaise of society numbed and exhausted by unhealthy forms of sex defined and formed under patriarchy.

The film’s scientific aspects…become a self-reflexive critique of the film itself…

Trouble Every Day is a hard blunt object to be subjected to, and the film, though with merits, does present a disturbing scene of the sexual landscape. Perhaps its most controversial elements raise questions as to whether hyperbolic graphic imagery does more to critique its subject, or in a strange inversion, do more to only normalize imagery of sexual violence and inculcate it in the viewer. Is a social critique justified in showing the subjects its critiquing in such extreme forms? Depending on perspective, it may be the film itself undermining its own point in its use of graphic imagery, or it may be subverting the use of graphic imagery by taking it back through the lens of horror genre via female perspective. It is a compelling and charged debate that, pulling back from film as a medium, can perhaps allow us to examine our societal obsession with image and the propagandistic effects of being consistently submerged in the visual. Trouble Every Day may triumph in skirting these lines, however, and by its own brutality ultimately forces us to look away from itself in horror and to the world around us. Like its character Coré, it eats away at the images we have so profoundly absorbed around sex, and spits them back at us in their true forms; it forces us to realize the consumeristic images of sex and sexuality in society, though superficially tamer to look at, have subjected their own gory and gross violence upon our psyches, chewing away at our hearts and minds.

Director: Claire Denis
Release Year: 2001
Runtime: 101 minutes

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