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Trouble Every Day
Directed by Claire Denis
Available on YouTube

By Noel Vera

LIKE A MAESTRO poised to perform Claire Denis begins her 2001 genre film Trouble Every Day with vague stirrings (a couple making out in a car) then a confident understated gesture: a truck drives past a hitchhiking woman, stops, reverses; the woman smiles. Driver climbs out of his cabin walks towards her, the truck’s rear flashing its appropriately named “hazard” lights.

So far so what? Working class lump, attractive woman — not much to see here. Setup for a rather lurid scenario, the woman presumably asking for trouble when she raised her thumb at the guy — only why is the woman’s smile so wide, why do her eyes flicker with an unnerving spark? Why are we aware of the truck’s flashers aimed directly at us, the driver — who turned them on in the first place — pointedly ignoring their warning as he walks towards the object of his desire and doom?

We don’t know, we’re not sure; we’re just vaguely aware that something’s wrong. Later that evening, a man on a motorcycle stops beside the truck (lights still flashing), looks around; finds the driver lying in a nearby field with enigmatic smile on face; finds the woman sitting a short distance beyond, jaws champing at a chunk of meat ’tween her teeth. He squats behind her, caresses her hair, cradles her in his arms.

Later we see a couple gazing out the oval of a plane window, she cute as a button, he dignified, ugly outjutting jaw under craggy brow — perfect pairing in their odd physiognomy. “I think those lights are Denver,” he says in a startlingly fragile voice. “Yeah” she replies. “Those lights so geometrical. Like a computer chip.” We catch a glimpse of what they’re seeing and the lights are geometrical, suggesting a perfect symmetry the rest of the film never quite achieves.

Denis, that most tactile of filmmakers, uses her gift for evoking textures to suggest the sensuousness of surfaces — of skin, of cloth, of, yes, a vista of city lights like a computer chip — imply the qualities of what lies on them, what lies underneath. How, say, droplets of blood bead and roll down June’s (Tricia Vessey) flawless skin; the panties across her rear stretch tight, squeezing out more droplets as they suggest (her thighs rubbing against each other) the firm roundness beneath. That aforementioned couple framed in a perfect oval? As June sleeps, turns out her husband Shane (Vincent Gallo) has spent the time sitting inside one of the plane’s toilet stalls, imagining his wife drenched in blood.

Later at Shane and June’s hotel room, their maid Christelle (the willowy Florence Loiret Caille), prepares their bed and they can’t wait; they frolic on the mattress while she’s trying to spread the sheets and you know — from the camera angles observing Christelle’s awkward poise — that maid and husband are aware of each other checking each other out.

Denis doesn’t tell a story so much as titrate it a drop at a time — we eventually learn that the trucker killer is Core (Beatrice Dulle), we learn that the man on the bike who followed her is her husband Dr. Leo Semenau who usually has her boarded up in her room to prevent more killings (he occasionally fails). We further learn as Shane visits Semenau’s former workplace, that Shane “works for a big lab” interested in a paper Semenau once wrote but that the latter is “no longer part of the scientific community” and has since vanished.

Big dollop of plot exposition raising as many questions as answers: Why is Shane so insistent? Why did Semenau disappear? What’s in that paper anyway? But Denis doesn’t seem as interested in connecting dots as she is forming associations with sound, shape, color: a glass cylinder spins in green liquid and we watch as the fluid forms a concave depression from the centrifugal spin, the tube striking a sharp ting in the glass dish every few seconds. Life being nurtured in the lab? Forces spinning in perfect balance, accelerating (as the conversation between Shane and the director of research [Jose Garcia] grows heated) out of control?

The film takes its time the way a cat takes time with its prey, and when most, if not all, of the film’s scheme has unfolded, you realize what you’re looking at: a map of human response to stimuli, from pleasure to pain to adoration to avarice; the horror is that the map has no clear boundaries. The provinces have blurred into each other, are easily confused with each other, the lines — especially in Core’s case — having ceased to exist entirely.

Hence (skip the next three paragraphs if you haven’t seen the film) Core’s encounter with a young man who rips the boards off her door, pins her down — in their lovemaking Denis surveys his skin like an undiscovered country, noting smooth undulating valleys and stiff little peaks, tufts of blonde grassland and pockets of curly forest, before Core swallows whole villages, towns, municipalities, with her mouth. When she starts applying teeth, the boy’s moans, howls of pleasure shade almost indistinguishably into grunts, shrieks of pain, and you realize that Denis is also blurring our boundaries, confusing our sense of pain, pleasure, beauty, horror. And Core drinks it all in; while the boy screams, her tongue flicks out to lap the streaming blood like a kitten hungrily, delightedly, lapping milk from a saucer.

In a later mirroring scene, Shane and June caress each other; when the lovemaking turns hot and heavy, Shane suddenly pulls away, locks himself in the bathroom, and starts pulling on his pud, the expression on his face alive with more ferocity than Core or anyone else has or will demonstrate in the film. You imagine he could rip his cock out by the root; you suspect that that was his intention, to spare the wife weeping outside the door his murderous impulses.

The finale has Christelle — who in a handful of scenes we have come to know and like — going back to her locker for her daily change into civilian clothes and we know what’s coming, it’s as inevitable and symmetrically structured as any fairy tale, not so much the lush sentimental gems of Hans Christian Anderson as Brothers Grimm, spare and unsparing in detail and tone.

Recent years have offered a bouquet of innovative horror films, from The Babadook to It Follows to The Visit to The VVitch to Goodnight Mommy. In terms of spare technique, of graceful style, of unflinching unwavering horror, Denis sweeps practically everything else off the table, stakes the territory as her own. One of the best if not the best horror of the new millennium? I think so.