Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Trouble Every Day

I meant this film to be my introduction to Claire Denis, but what engaged me most when watching it was the cinematography, which can be credited to none other than Agnes Varda. Regardless of which of the two women dominates the aesthetics, this film represents a powerhouse collaboration of estrogen, resulting in something less than typically "feminine." At least, it doesn't deal with anything remotely fluffy. Aside from the interest in gore, it's not surprising that this film is the result of a female filmmaking team, because of its investigation into the dynamics of relationships. Buried deeply, there is even a subtext of eco-feminism. This is a thought-piece masquerading as a horror film.

I have read, several times, of Trouble Every Day being referred to as a "tone poem," which is apt enough that I'm repeating it here. I hesitate to refer to this movie as horror, despite its cannibalistic themes. Aside from some gore, Denis' film shares little with conventional horror films, although it shares a similar, static sensibility with certain Haneke films. There is little dialogue, and a scant few scenes of violence, though those few are pretty brutal. A combination of wide shots and extreme close ups reveal an often stark division between character and landscape. While it chronicles a small ensemble, the screen time is distributed relatively evenly between them, allowing little chance for character development. We know very little; and we learn very little. The camera merely scans the surface of the players, as if hoping to get a glimpse inside them.

On a honeymoon in France, Shane (Vincent Gallo) is intermittently close and distant from his bride, June Brown (Tricia Vessey). Covering his absences with a lie about meeting a coworker, Shane wanders off to search for Leo (Alex Descas), a former scientist who may be able to provide some insight into his condition. Although Shane never finds Leo, he does come in contact with his wife, Core (Beatrice Dalle), who is similarly afflicted, so much that it has consumed her. The film alternates between the members of this loose ensemble, which unexpectedly includes, Christelle (Florence Loiret Caille), the hotel maid who attends to the Browns' room. We are first introduced to Christelle with a long tracking shot that forces the viewer to stare at the nape of her neck, as she struggles maladroitly with the couple's heavy luggage. We then witness her feeble attempts to make the bed as the Browns collapse onto it, behaving as though she is not even there. Though somewhat extraneous to the network that forms the basis for the film, she is its most compelling character, providing a contrasting point of view that introduces an undercurrent of unconscious privilege, adding dimension to the power dialectic already inherent in the treatment of cannibalism.

The main symptom of Shane and Core's "condition" is the desire to literally consume the object of ones desire, mauling them to death. Consummate and consume; be consumed by passion and consume the flesh. Consumption, wealth, exploitation, sex. Although sex is the locus around which all the themes converge, the state which Core and Shane find themselves in is a direct result of their tropical research, where I believe we are meant to assume that they contracted something. A somewhat jarring dream sequence reveals Shane's preoccupation with money, a hint that his present state is indeed related to some kind of infraction. The disease is a punishment for perhaps digging too deeply, maybe at the expense of the land, or its peoples-- for inflicting on the environment what they now inflict on their sexual partners. What makes this reference to tropical scientific research so intriguing is its total vagueness. Either it's a plot hole that needed filling for the sake of verisimilitude, or it's a telling detail, whether it was intentional or not.

Though their actions are brutal, Core and Shane are, themselves, victims of a disease that robs them of their humanity. We feel especially for Core, who Leo keeps imprisoned out of mercy for the surrounding world. Addicted to the blood, she escapes and continues to find victims to satiate her. Like many horror movies, Denis' movie delves into the dichotomy of mind versus body. Sex is not often a very cerebral act, but here it is entirely debased. While sex is somewhat instinctual, the cannibalism defies sexual instinct: Shane begins his conquest of Christelle by devouring her vagina. By mauling their victims, Core and Shane refute the idea that sex has anything to do with procreation, or pleasure, either. It is compulsive predation.

If only to escape the hackneyed discussion of gendered sexual dynamics, one can read this predatory condition as a vague metaphor about wealth and privilege--the way in which the lower classes are at once visible and invisible. Christelle, the maid is conspicuous as an object, but without a real voice up until the point of her demise. Floating like an apparition through the bright, immaculate rooms of the hotel, her environment is the dark downstairs, lined with shabby lockers. It is a place Shane has no reason to enter, until he violates her there. Most wealthy people, especially wealthy Americans are out of touch with their own privilege, refusing to implicate themselves as part of the cause. We feel caught in a system that is not in our control; we are not complicit. As we cannibalize the less fortunate with our own ignorance and apathy, destroying their humanity as well as our own, we ignore the reality: that vacuous consumption comes at a cost. Notably, neither Shane nor Core claim their own loved ones as their prey. Their small, insulated worlds of wealth remained unmarred.

In the last frame we see the dawning knowledge in June's eyes as her husband embraces her.

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