A woman in a black negligee stands atop a hill in the dead of winter, yellow grass under her boots as she clutches an army-green coat around her skimpy frame. A man lands in Paris with his new bride, ready to celebrate their honeymoon in what’s famously lauded as the most romantic city on Earth. Upon closer inspection, streaks of dried blood surround the woman’s mouth, while the man carries anxious dread on his face unusual for a honeymooner. As it turns out, both are suffering from the same sickness: A compulsive urge to devour human beings, to gnaw on fat and tissue and imbibe hot blood. Little else moves the otherwise languorous plot of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day, a chilling and cerebral tale of cannibalism that follows newlywed Shane (Vincent Gallo, previously cast in Denis’ US Go Home and Nénette et Boni) and sanguine seductress Coré (the always alluring Béatrice Dalle, also appearing in Denis’ I Can’t Sleep and The Intruder) as they separately navigate their taboo desire. Shane keeps his wife in the dark as to exactly why they’re in Paris (hint: he’s trying to hunt down his fellow flesh-eater), while Coré’s husband keeps her locked in the house to prevent her from killing and devouring more hapless men.
Trouble Every Day was far from praised upon its initial release 20 years ago. Though it’s not unusual for niche arthouse horror films to find devoted fans and eventual reappraisal over time, Denis possessed the rare distinction of establishing herself as a powerhouse from the get-go, making the pan particularly painful. She was first acclaimed for her semi-autobiographical 1988 debut Chocolat, a momentum she rightfully sustained through her transcendent 1999 opus Beau Travail. Perhaps because Trouble Every Day followed immediately after, its dissenting tone of gory, ambient horror confounded critics. Amy Taubin proclaimed in The Village Voice that Trouble Every Day was “the first misstep in her career,” while others described the film as “cold and dead,” “stillborn except as a harsh conceptual exercise,” and “badly handled pretentiousness.”
That Trouble Every Day struck such a nerve is, of course, indicative of its prescient genius. The film arguably heralded the New French Extremity movement, which saw directors in the country embracing taboo and violent spectacle to push the boundaries of horror filmmaking. Although the term has come to be synonymous with films like High Tension, Inside and Martyrs, Denis’ vampiric vision of feeding via cunnilingus has undoubtedly inspired future installments in the patently putrid subgenre. Despite a community of cinephilic sickos devouring this sect of horror films much like Denis’ crazed cannibals, the categorization was first coined as a pejorative by Artforum critic James Quandt in a 2004 essay.
Citing several films that seem to transgress for the sheer satisfaction of shallow shock value, Quandt’s thorough survey begins with would-be Bresson successor Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms and touches upon films by French provocateurs Gaspar Noé and Catherine Breillat, among several others. He also specifically writes about Trouble Every Day, complaining about the film’s apparent lack of narrative and Denis’ illogical distancing from her previous fascination with France’s colonial ties and enduring racism. He brands the then-newfound cinematic movement as “an aggressiveness that is really a grandiose form of passivity.”
While not without its fair points, this argument would hold little water contemporarily. Much like with the recent reevaluation of American “torture porn” films of the same era, it’s clear that filmic depictions of violence are often a response to the real-world terrors of a world inching toward decline. Whether it be the infamous Abu Ghraib photo leak or the 2002 election of an unexpectedly far-right president, the oppressive terror of being suddenly entrenched in an uncaring and callous society certainly seeps into artistic intent. Yet, particularly with films like Trouble Every Day or Breillat’s Fat Girl (both preceding this specific shift in French political conservatism), it’s clear that the objective of each film is rooted in the physical limits of the body—mortal wounds by way of lust-laced mastication on the one hand, rape and axe-murders fueled by sadosexual masculine rage on the other. Though the majority of films in this subgenre are preoccupied with conventions of body horror (scissor-ean births, emaciated figures, bodies boiled alive), the preoccupation with corporeal violation or invasion is handled with heightened bravado by women filmmakers.
Though Trouble Every Day largely follows Shane’s frenzied search as he attempts to deduce where his ravenous hunger has spawned from, the undeniable gap-toothed face of the film is Coré. The inhuman glee with which she embraces her murderous affliction is a disturbing foil to Shane’s unsuccessful restraint. She is perhaps never more unhinged in her cannibalistic possession than during a scene in which she seduces a young man, eventually restraining him while she chews on his flesh; his former moans of pleasure slowly transforming to screams of anguish as she giddily flaps flayed skin between her fingers, lapping up the blood that seeps from his fresh wound. When Shane can no longer control himself, the film culminates in him seeking out the hotel maid that has been making eyes at him—when he finds her, he literally eats her out. Though both Coré and Shane’s hunger is primarily expressed through sex acts that turn deadly in their sadism, Coré’s tryst at least began as consensual. In fact, the viewer wonders what danger may have been in store for Coré had she not been all too willing to engage with the boy’s advances, considering their encounter is predicated on his breaking into her home. Shane, on the other hand, struggles to get the maid on the ground, forcing her down despite her attempt to resist. In Trouble Every Day, women can occupy opposing roles of perpetrator or victim. What they share is the experience of being physically overcome by a force which they have no power of warding off, and this is what inevitably (and literally) consumes them.
It would be disingenuous to claim that Denis’ singular foray into the horror genre is the sole inspiration behind several subsequent (and often French) women-directed horror films. However, the thematic qualities of Trouble Every Day that so boggled the minds of critics in 2001 are entirely recognizable in recent films that were met much more warmly upon their release. Of course, Julia Ducournau’s feast of flesh Raw similarly finds a woman with an insatiable urge to cannibalize, while her recent follow-up Titane finds the pregnant protagonist carrying a foreign body to term, desperately trying to suppress its visible presence. Lucille Hadžihalilovic’s Evolution is concerned with disturbing bodily possessions as well, portraying a young boy harboring a strange fetus inside his abdomen after being admitted to a strange hospital. Carolie Fargeat’s Revenge finds its main character overpowered and raped by a boorish man, then betrayed by her lover who would rather kill her than indict his rapist friend. When she survives, she exacts satisfying, bloody vengeance—entire bodies and rooms slick with crimson blood in true New French Extremity fashion.
It could easily be challenged that these films are equally (if not more) inspired by Cronenberg or I Spit on Your Grave, but the interest in profound (and often philosophical) introspection concerning the fate of each heroine feels appropriate to link back to Trouble Every Day, particularly in the case of Ducournau’s films. Raw’s Justine (Garance Marillier) seeks to subdue her bloodlust, wavering between discipline and indulgence much like Shane, while her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf) is far less encumbered, going so far as killing an anonymous motorist like Coré does in the Trouble Every Day’s opening scene. Titane is comparable to Denis’ film in the sense that its protagonist, also named Alexia (Agathe Rousselle), is of few words and an indeterminate background. The context for her desire to kill is largely left to interpretation—though careful viewers will glean that Trouble Every Day posits a biological trigger to the characters’ cannibalism—forcing viewers into a feeling of abject revulsion toward her actions, particularly as the film carries on and she assumes the identity of a long-lost missing child. Likewise, Shane and ?Coré are hardly likable, yet the viewer follows and engages with their twisted urges, oscillating between fascination and fear.
Most importantly, Trouble Every Day has continued to influence Denis’ own work, namely her 2019 English-language debut High Life. The two deal with several of the same concepts: An intense and unnatural desire for bodily fluids (blood and semen, respectively), disturbing images of mutilated humans (whether by bite marks or black holes), and the similarity in phenotype of muses Vincent Gallo and Robert Pattinson (indeed, Denis had intended to cast Gallo before being approached by Pattinson). The reach of Trouble Every Day can even be felt in less obvious American films, from the equally derisive Jennifer’s Body (also featuring a sexy, remorseless man-eater) to the Soska Sisters’ American Mary (also exhibiting blood-drenched body horror’s connection to sexual corporeality). Forever cemented in (or relegated to) the cultural annals of New French Extremity, Trouble Every Day contains its own brand of dream-like, drowsy fear—akin to the sensation of waking up in the middle of a hellish nightmare that’s so horrifying, you fall back asleep out of curiosity for just how gruesome it gets.
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan