Saturday, December 8, 2007

Trouble Every Day

One of the first films I wrote about for this blog was Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001), and since I wasn't happy with what I wrote--the idea was to write anything just to get into the habit of writing--I'd been thinking of doing a revision for some time. When Heather showed me her paper comparing Denis' Chocolat (1988) with Diane Kurys' Coup de foudre (1983), I thought now might be the time to do it, if only as a supplement to her essay.

Part of the reason I was so dissatisfied with what I wrote is that, at the time, I was interested primarily at looking at the politics of cinema, taking form for granted, which is why I hesitated before tackling more avant-garde film and video makers like Len Lye and Bill Viola. This approach I've found is best suited to mainstream cinema, where style is supposed to be invisible and which is generally thought to be apolitical entertainment, but applied to a maker of art films like Denis, its limitations become more apparent. One of my more successful attempts at this kind of criticism was the piece I wrote on Arrested Development (2003-06), but even there I was defeated by the sheer volume of the narrative, which points to another limitation of this approach: the necessity of fitting everything into a coherent thesis means either ignoring everything that doesn't fit or robbing the work of its strangeness by over-interpretting the text. In the late 1970's, Robin Wood wrote a piece on Jacques Rivette that argues Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) presents a challenge to the existing patriarchy, linking Rivette's film--which is playful, funny
and beautifully acted--with George Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978), which isn't any of those things. (1) (Of course, Wood is careful not to express a preference for either film, as if only an elitist snob would make a distinction between a French art movie and an American genre piece, regardless if the acting in the latter is flat as a pancake and its satire of consumerism broader than the backside of a barn.) However, the more I look at Rivette's film, the more it seems to teeter of the verge of gibberish. If, on first viewing, one glosses over its discontinuities and ruptures so that it appears to be coherent, the closer one looks the more it stops making sense. When Céline/Juliet Berto tells Julie/Dominique Labourier about her former boss and the two women chasing her, she seems to be describing the scenerio in the haunted house at 7 bis, rue de Nadir aux Pommes, but her story about the passports doesn't fit into its endlessly repeating narrative, and even if it did, how could Céline remember it without the aid of a magic candy? (By this point, the film has already established Céline as a compulsive fibber, so one might dismiss her story as a pure flight of fancy except that it seems to trigger associations for Julie.) Similarly, the notion that this or any other Rivette film can be read unproblematically in feminist terms in undermined by the director's own statement that his main motive for becoming a film director was to meet his favorite actresses. (2)

One of the most successful attempts I've encountered to bridge the percieved gap between form and content is Kristen Thompson's 300-page Neo-Formalist analysis of Sergei Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible (1944-46), which draws a parallel between Eiesenstein's unusual film (pointedly compared with Hollywood models like John Ford's Mary of Scotland [1936] and Howard Hawks' Sargeant York [1941]) and the unusual use of language in poetry when placed against the background of everyday conversation. Much of the book is devoted to certain devices--visual and aural motifs, ambiguous spatial relationships, expressionistic production design, etc.--that reenforce the film's themes but function independently of the chain of causes and effects that make-up the narrative. One of her more provocative insights is that the process of following a story takes place entirely inside the viewer's memory. Taking this a step further, I would argue that narrative, which is simply a sequence of events, is as much an aesthetic element as cinematography or art direction that one can enjoy for its own sake, regardless of whether there's a unifying vision behind it. I enjoyed Berardo Bertolucci's La Luna (1979) up to a point for the melodramatic (if familiar) storyline, the gutsy lead performance by Jill Clayburgh, Vittorio Storaro's gorgeous cinematography, the director's stylish camera movements, the opera music on the soundtrack and a clever intertextual referrence to Bertolucci's own Last Tango in Paris (1972), but ultimately I was disappointed to see these things placed in the service of such a reductive theme. Basically, the film argues, a boy needs a father (only biological ones need apply) or else he'll become a drug addict who's never outgrown his Oedipus complex. At the moment of reconciliation between mother/Clayburgh and father/Tomas Milian, the boy's girlfriend/Elisabetta Campeti, who's been absent for most of the picture, magically reappears to usher the boy/Matthew Barry into a normal, heterosexual relationship. Alternatives to the nuclear family--specifically, the boy's relationship with his stepfather/Fred Gwynne--are, in the film, tainted by their association with drug use. To fall back on a cliché, La Luna finally adds up to something less than the sum of its sensational parts.

In general, horror movies tend towards excess--piledriver effects at regular intervals to keep the audience from becoming bored. (The nine films Val Letwon produced for RKO in the 1940's, including masterpieces like Jacques Tourneur's Cat People [1942], I Walked With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and Mark Robson's The Seventh Victim [all 1943], are notable exceptions.) Thompson outlines three types of motivation: realistic, compositional (narrative) and artistic; she doesn't address horror films at all, but I would argue that the excessive gore and nudity, and sudden loud noises that practically define the genre are simply unmotivated--momentary jolts of sensation rather than part of a larger design, and by definition, not artistic. Although I described No Country for Old Men (2007) as film noir in a previous post, on later reflection, horror seems closer to the mark. It has more of a story to motivate its violence than Dawn of the Dead, but given what an obvious MacGuffin the suitcase full of money is, not much more. And with its virtually unexamined nihilism ("We believe in nothing!"), the film is finally less than meets the eye. The one time it comes close to refuting this bogus non-metaphysic is the scene in which Carla Jean/Kelly McDonald asks Anton Chigurh/Javier Bardem to spare her life, telling him "You don't have to do this," but ultimately, it's his point of view that the film endorses: he kills Carla Jean anyway (albeit off-screen), and just so we're not unsure, Anton gets in a car accident in the very next scene as he's leaving the scene of the murder.

Trouble Every Day has its share of sex and gore, but Denis' engagment with the material runs much deeper than surface effects--something one can glean from the score by Tindersticks, which is so well integrated that I didn't even notice it on first viewing. A kind of vampire movie set in contemporary Paris, it tells the story of two couples. Léo/Alex Descas is a research scientist desperately working to find a cure for an unnamed disease that's afflicting his girlfriend, Coré/Béatrice Dalle. We first see her on the outskirts of the city for an illicit rendezvous with a truck driver/Arnaud Churin; when Léo finds her in a field, not far from the driver's body, she has blood all over her face. The other couple is a pair of American newlyweds honeymooning in Paris: Shane Brown/Vincent Gallo is a former colleague of Léo's suffering from the same affliction as Coré, unbeknownst to his wife, June/Tricia Vessey. Denis works out the film's thematic tensions--between English and French, purity and contamination, lust and caution--as much through her choice of locations, recurring visual motifs and the wonderful performances from the four leads as she does through the sequence of events that forms the narrative spine (which is not to say that the film doesn't have any excess).

Boundaries, whether they be geographical, temporal, social, etc., are at the heart of much of Denis' work. In Chocolat, a white houseguest/Jean-Claude Adelin has the privilage of "going native," but it's unthinkable that Protée/Isaach De Bankolé would be allowed to sleep in the master's house. Similarly, the bookending sequences in post-colonial Cameroon illustrate the impossibility of returning to the past. On the beach, an adult France/Mireille Perrier meets an American man/Emmet Judson Williamson who returned to Africa expecting to be embraced by his people only to get ripped-off at the airport. (Beau travail [1999], her only other film to consider the legacy of French colonalism on present-day Africa, is also told mainly in flashback.) In Trouble Every Day, the film alternates between the parts of Paris a tourist is likely to see (expensive hotels, gothic churches) and the far less glamourous suburbs where Léo lives and works. In an early scene, a patient/Albert Szpiro who can't afford to pay Léo tells him he forgot his wallet at home. In all the scenes where Shane and June are present, the French characters speak to them in English, even though Shane used to live in Paris and presumably speaks the language.

The fifth character in the film, Christelle/Florence Loiret, who works as a maid at the hotel where Shane and June are staying, is positioned somewhere between the two couples. Like Protée, she has a certain ammount of access to the other world (she has a key to the Browns' room) while remaining excluded from it; Denis shows her stealing unopened jars of complementary jam the hotel guests don't use. We also she her in the bunker-like employee changing room where she changes into and out of her uniform, suggesting an intermediate zone between French-speaking world and the English-speaking world. And like Protée, who is never seen when there aren't any Europeans present, she remains unknowable; the only thing we learn about her life outside the hotel is that she's picked up from work everyday by her boyfriend/Slimane Brahimi who, like Léo, drives a motorcycle, reminding one of the Rolls Royce in Jean Cocteau's Orphée (1950) that escorted the newly deceased into the land of the dead.

This theme of the unknowable Other even extends to June's growing awareness of how little she knows about her husband. When June visits Shane's former landlady, Jeanne/Aurore Clément, late in the film after finding her address on Shane's computer, Jeanne shows her an old picture of Shane and asks if he's changed much; June replies she doesn't know. In the film's very last sequence, June returns to the hotel room where Shane is taking a shower after raping and murdering Christelle. As Shane tells her he wants to go home, Denis cuts from an insert of a drop of blood running down the shower curtain to a close-up of Shane, and then an extreme close-up of June's eyes. It's unlikely that June sees the drop of blood (she remains as much in the dark about Shane's condition as she was at the beginning of the film); rather, Denis communicates their sense of disconnection by showing them looking in different directions as opposed to making eye contact. (There's a more dramatic example of the same principle in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report [2002]).

Thompson only devotes a few paragraphs to the performances in Ivan the Terrible, generally treating the actors merely as elements of the mise en scène, which perhaps speaks to how difficult it is to talk about what an actor does. Even though actors themselves vote on the Academy Awards, I suspect the reason the prizes for best acting often go to the most acting--much like how the trophy for best editing usually goes to the film with the greatest number of cuts--is because Forest Whitaker's showoffy impersonation of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland (2006) is a lot easier to sum up in a ten-second Oscar clip than the more nuanced performances he gave in Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Abel Ferrara's Mary (2005). When an actor takes on a historical figure like Amin, or plays a character who's mentally handicapped or has a debilitating disease, it's presumed that the challenge is to make the audience forget they're looking at an actor (similarly, classical Hollywood style aims to not to call attention to the cinematography, editing, art direction, etc. through realistic motivation), but I'm not convinced that acting should be judged according to veracity; in the case of Eisenstein's film, the campy performances are an essential part of the overall design.

There's nothing campy about the acting in Trouble Every Day, despite the horror movie trappings (parodied in a sequence where Shane and June visit a gothic church with the former imitating a vampire and the latter a damsel in distress), but neither are the performances strictly realistic; since Denis keeps the dialogue to a bare minimum, one can't impose notions of method acting or psychological realism onto the film. Instead, Denis seems to choose her actors for their phsyical essences (incidentally, three of the four leads are Denis regulars: Dalle and Descas also played a couple in J'ai pas sommeil [1994], and Gallo had a much more verbose role in Nénette et Boni [1996] as an American expatriate married to a French pastry chef/Valeria Bruni Tedeschi). In Chocolat, Protée's physical strength corresponds to his moral integrity. And the title of Beau travail--the masculine variation of "beautiful work"--can't be translated accurately into English given the importance of homoerotic spectacle to its story: the protagonist, Galoup/Denis Levant, is a soldier in the French foreign legion whose training exercises are observed (with much bemusement) by the local women. (3) Here, Coré is like an insatiable animal without psychology, trapped in a perpetual Now; when we see her in flashback, smoking a cigarette in a lab, it's the only time in the film Dalle seems to be acting, as if Denis were simply at a loss to imagine what Coré was like before her disease. Like Protée, Léo is another one of Denis' hard-bodied protectors, locking Coré in their bedroom everyday before leaving for work, but even his strength is not enough to match her hunger, which seems at times more metaphysical than medical: even if he can keep Coré in, he's helpless to keep out a curious French teenager/Nicolas Duvauchelle who's irresistably drawn to her.

In her analysis of Ivan the Terrible, Thompson outlines three encompassing narrative threads that relate to Ivan/Nikolai Cherkasov's goal of unifying Russia: his relationship with the Boyars, his relationship with the Russian people, and the war with Kazan. Since Ivan's ability to achieve the goal is beyond doubt, the function of each of these threads is to keep the film from ending prematurely. In Trouble Every Day, where Shane's defeat is every bit as certain as Ivan's victory, the soul retardation device stopping him from having sex with June--literally delaying gratification--is his search for Léo, whom Shane believes has a cure. After he finds Coré covered in the teenager's blood and strangles her to death (the conclusion of his search for Léo), Denis cuts to Shane and June kissing in bed, but when he becomes arroused, Shane runs into the bathroom and masturbates. This is followed in loose succession by two sequences building up to Christelle's rape. In the first, where Shane stalks a woman on the street/Laure Guérard, the handheld close-ups rhyme with an earlier sequence in which he and June follow Christelle to their hotel room. Similarly, the scene in which Shane presses his body against a woman on the subway/Véra Chidyvar (which is observed by a teenage girl/Alice Houri) recalls a sequence earlier in the film where Shane attempts to molest a woman in the hotel/Céline Samie.

Even when sipping champagne with June aboard an airplane, Shane seems deeply uncomfortable. Often when a reviewer says an actor looks uncomfortable they mean to indicate poor direction, as if the actor simply didn't know what the director expected of them (Roger Ebert's review of Elaine May's Ishtar [1987]--a film I liked, incidentally--is merely the first example that comes to mind), or that they're simply miscast. Needless to say, in real life people are uncomfortable all the time, but in most Hollywood films we're invited to over-identify with characters who are stronger, more confident, more perfect than we are; Thompson observes of Eisenstein's film, for instance, that he treats Ivan more as a mythological hero than a psychologically convincing person. Here, however, that's precisely the effect Denis is going for. Twice in the film, characters offer Shane a glass of water out of concern: first on the airplane when he runs to the bathroom and later in a laboratory where he uses his hand to shield his eyes from the bright lights. An insomniac, Shane spends his nights smoking in bed, pacing on the balcony or wandering the city aimlessly. His discomfort is particularly palpable in a sequence where he stands over June as she lies in the bathtub; opening her eyes, she's surprised by his presence, and Denis even supplies us with a menacing low-angle shot of Shane looking down on her. Kneeling down, he touches her hair gently and asks "Were you frightened?" She quickly changes the subject. In the middle of an embrace, he notices a bite mark on her shoulder, suggesting the danger he poses to his wife.

As indicated by the two scenes cited above, in which Shane is offered a drink, water is a recurring motif in the film. Thompson makes a particular point of how Eisenstein calls attention to his motifs, which would otherwise remain part of the background mise en scène. Here, for example, Denis cuts from an enigmatic shot of a couple kissing in the backseat of a car (neither the couple nor the car is seen again) to a river on the outskirts of Paris, which is followed by the opening credits over a black screen. It's here that Denis bares the motif as water ripples appear over the names of the actors and crew.

Water--which comes to be associated with a healthy libido (the couple in the car), purity and cleansing (a shot of June washing her feet in the bathtub in the hotel room is contrasted with Christelle washing her feet in a sink in the hotel's basement)--is opposed by the blood motif, which is associated with contamination and a blocked libido: Shane can't make love to June because he's afraid of contaminating her, if not killing her. This is established in a dream sequence that bares the blood motif: aboard the plane, as Shane sits in the bathroom, he's tormented by the image of June lying in a bed covered in blood--an image that's rhymed with Coré covered in the blood of one of the teenagers. The final sequence, with Shane taking a shower to wash away Christelle's blood, brings together both of these motifs.

Up till now I've defined excess entirely in negative terms, referring generally to the cheap thrills offered by conventional horror movies. Thompson, however, uses the word excess positively to refer to the surplus pleasure one derives from watching and listening to a film--the jouissance of the image, which can't be exhausted by a shot's function in the narrative. Conventional films define space coherently through establishing shots in deep focus, match cuts and matching eyelines. In discussing Trouble Every Day, I want to examine briefly how Denis and her cinematographer, Agnès Godard, at moments of great pleasure and pain (which often overlap), cut to disorienting extreme close-ups or otherwise sever the characters from the surrounding space. Shane's nightmare of June covered in blood takes place in a quasi-theatrical, abstract space with darkness on all sides--what Gilles Deleuze might call (if I understand him correctly, and I'm almost certain I don't) an any-space-whatever which, as a fantasy, exists outside the time and space of the narrative. Later, when Coré is having sex with the teenager before killing him, Denis and Godard film his torso from above, moving slowly across the surface of his skin. Without an establishing shot to even establish whose torso we're looking at, the effect is to take us out of the past-tense of the narrative--the sequence events leading up to any given moment--and have us really look at the film. This relates to the emotional states of the characters (June, Coré, the teenager) who, at both points in the narrative, are completely in the Now, like animals acting on instinct.

I'm not certain Trouble Every Day has a point or a message, but there is (as I hope I've shown) an underlying unity of story, acting and cinematography--the technical aspects of film--so that the whole adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts. Even the abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion is abrupt and unsatisfying in a way that's deliberate and meaningful. Neither Shane's desire for a cure nor his desire to make love to his wife can be satisfied, so it's appropriate that Denis leaves us hanging. If there's such a thing as "pure cinema," this is it.

1. Wood's article, "Narrative Pleasure: Two Films of Jacques Rivette" is available online at
2. This statement was made at the world premiere of Rivette's Duelle (une quarantine) (1976) at the London Film Festival. My source is Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of Duelle and Noroît (also 1976; I haven't seen either) in the Chicago Reader, which is available
online. If all this talk of Rivette seems gratuitous--and I'm not saying it isn't--it's worth noting that one of Denis' first jobs on a film set was as a production assistant on Rivette's Out 1 (unseen by me in, either it's twelve-hour version, Noli me tangere [screened once in 1971 at Le Havre over two days as a work print, after it was rejected by French television, and not seen again until the 1989 Rotterdam film festival in a slightly re-edited form], or the four-hour Spectre [1972]). In 1990, Denis directed a feature-length documentary of an interview with Rivette, conducted by the film critic Serge Daney, titled Jacques Rivette, le veilleur (also unseen by me) for the television series "Cinéma, de notre temps."
3. The exception that proves the rule is Denis' atypically talky and Linklater-esque "Vers Nancy," her contribution to the sketch film Ten Minutes Older: The Cello (2002), featuring the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, whose autobiographical essay on having a heart transplant was the basis for Denis' subsequent feature, L'Intrus (2004). More typical of Denis' work, L'Intrus has very little dialogue and the cast is full of Denis regulars: Michel Subor (Beau travail), Grégoire Colin (Nénette et Boni), Katia Golubeva (J'ai pas sommeil), Descas, Loiret, and Dalle as "The Queen of the Northern Hemphisphere." Although I saw it twice, I wasn't able to enage with it on either occassion.

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