Vincent Gallo — his face angular, perpetually scruffy, and with a piercing, insistently crazy gaze — is the fulcrum on which Trouble Every Day, a seat-clearing sexual-vampire movie from impeccable French stylist Claire Denis, turns. As usual, he looks intelligent, handsome and scary in equal measure. It’s no wonder recent gossip links him romantically with PJ Harvey. He’s that weird.
In Trouble Every Day, he’s an enigma. As a pharmaceuticals researcher who travels across most of America and the Atlantic Ocean to spend a honeymoon with sweetie Tricia Vessey, he obviously has an ulterior motive for being in Paris. He meets clandestinely with doctors who engage in research activities like cutting up human brains and growing mutant plants. He seems incapable of making love with his wife, choosing instead to masturbate in the hotel bathroom, causing much consternation in his marital relationship.
His story is told in parallel with that of a gloriously fucked-up Beatrice Dalle, a beautiful basket case who prowls the outskirts of the city for sexual partners. In an early scene, she lures a truck driver by whipping her coat open, revealing a tight black dress and an open invitation. The look on her face is—what? Anticipation? Arousal? Hunger? Her liaisons end unhappily, with a corpse in the grass and blood smeared across her pretty lips. Her husband is a doctor, and he tries to keep his ravenous wife behind lock and key, apparently for the public good.
For a good portion of Trouble Every Day‘s running time, this is all the information we’re given. Truth be told, it’s all we need. There’s likely a sex-as-disease metaphor going on, which is very David Cronenberg, and the I’ve-fucked-you-now-I-must-kill-you stuff is straight outta Paul Schrader’s Cat People. Or Liquid Sky? Or, hell, Mantis in Lace. Whatever turns you on. Significantly, Denis cuts away from the most baldly expository scenes before they venture too deep into sci-fi/horror noodling—we have seen this all before, after all. In the end, some kind of love story bubbles to the surface. Denis’s characters are searching for the meaning in their capricious, even dangerous sexual urges. In Trouble Every Day, the great irony is that the only selfless expression of love may be the failure to consummate it.
What’s beautiful and disturbing is Denis’s take on the human body. Her previous film, Beau Travail, was remarkable in the ways it fetishized the semi-naked male, and this one feasts its camera gaze on the bare skin of virtually every character with a speaking part in screen-filling closeup. Agnès Godard’s camera glides easily across the human form, investing the distance between her lens and her subjects with a luminous physicality. As Vessey bathes, the camera tracks up her legs and thighs to her pubic hair, pivots slowly as it crawls the rest of the way over her torso and shoulders. The visual rhyme comes nearer the end of the film, as Dalle takes a lover who has come to liberate her from the prison of her husband’s making—and, unwittingly, sacrifice himself to her. The camera tracks across tufts of chest hair, magnified to enormous proportions on the movie screen, lingers on a dark nipple, then twists downward over the slowly heaving skin so that we’re not sure whether we’re heading up the neck or down the belly. It’s all marvelous, intimate imagery, and the film would be breathtaking even if it were a non-narrative piece, a study of the ways that light reveals human figures.
But there’s an urgency and even mysticism to the pictures, too, since an enigmatic first-reel flashback has already shown us a body covered entirely in droplets and rivulets of blood. Because we know that skin is to be broken, the images of flesh take on new currency; you become highly, erotically aware of the organs beneath the skin, the blood that pulses through the veins until the integrity of the sack that holds it all together is broken and the stuff just spews everywhere.
There’s some spew on screen eventually—quite a lot of blood, and even some semen—perhaps the last taboo in mainstream filmmaking. The film’s gory centerpieces cleared a few seats at its New York premiere; though it isn’t relentlessly violent, the material that is included is fairly alarming on its own. I had actually expected something more over-the-top and a bit more comic. As it is, the film is quite serious, like a tumor, and the title (apparently borrowed from the Frank Zappa song) is an understatement. Denis worked as an assistant director on Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire, and she seems to have borrowed a certain knack for effective use of pop music from director Wim Wenders—the brooding score by Tindersticks is one of the film’s chief assets.
For all its low-key naturalism, the film has some problems that keep it from feeling completely true and immediate. Gallo is a relentlessly, almost hilariously dour protagonist. It’s fortunate that Denis cuts back and forth between his story and Dalle’s for much of the film’s running time, since his glare can be hard to take. And I had a particularly hard time believing that, upon being approached from behind in a dark dressing room by an uninvited Gallo, a half-dressed hotel maid would fail to scream bloody murder, whether or not she found him darkly handsome and/or sexually intimidating. I guess French girls are different.