The Mad Cannibal in the Attic
What if Jane Eyre‘s crazy Mrs. Rochester was a cannibal? What if Rochester was becoming one himself? What if the long-suffering Jane was a cloying little pixie in pearl earrings and sweater sets?
For those of us who thought these burning questions would never be answered, there’s Trouble Every Day, the new film from acclaimed French director Claire Denis (Beau Travail, Nénette et Boni). Every shot where Shane (Vincent Gallo) eyes his wife June’s (Tricia Vessey) fragile neck like it’s filet mignon slams home what this film is supposedly about: the consuming nature of love, connections between violence and sex, possibly vampirism, and possibly Victorian repression and morbidity. Not to mention Vincent Gallo’s icy ability to look totally creepy. There are many unbelievable premises in Trouble Every Day, but the most outrageous plot point might be that any woman would marry him in the first place.
But that sweet little darling June seems to love the guy, and they’re happily on their honeymoon to Paris. Shane, however, is fighting the urges to rub up on women in public and to gnaw on his comely wife’s arm (somehow these are both symptoms of the same ailment). Meanwhile, Leo (Alex Descas), a doctor who has been ostracized from the scientific community due to his unusual experiments on, of course, human beings, keeps his own wife Coré (Béatrice Dalle) locked up in their house for fear she’ll seduce and snack on unsuspecting men. Coré manages to find a willing guy anyway, leading to one of Trouble Every Day‘s very controversial sex cum grotesque murder scenes.
Still, Coré is no sociopath. She knows that chomping on her lovers is wrong (“I’m sick! I’m sick!”), but she just can’t help it; it has recently become her nature. Evidently, her cannibalism is the result of an experiment gone awry several years ago in Guyana, at which time and place Shane and Coré were quite attracted to each other. Whether this means they wanted to have sex, eat each other, or both, is unclear. Regardless, while Leo may be the one physically blockading Coré from the real world, Shane is the one keeping her a secret from his current love interest, which places him in the Rochester role.
The Jane Eyre references aren’t the only reasons the film feels rather Victorian. Coré, for one, could have stepped out of an absinthe-fueled decadent poem—she’s devastatingly attractive and totally sexual, but will literally consume any man who sleeps with her. Bizarre “scientific” objects abound, like a glass tub of water with what looks like a giant spinning pill in it, strange plant cuttings in test tubes, and brains chilled in foggy dry ice, evoking the dim laboratories of Jules Verne or H. G. Wells novels. Visually, the film evokes this interest in “objects”: extreme close-ups recreate the characters’ bodies as abstract landscapes of skin and hair; especially when combined with the Tindersticks’ uncharacteristically minimal soundtrack, this kind of detail is hauntingly moody, more than verging on the surreal and the poetic. But Denis’ attention to detail doesn’t extend beyond the purely visual. Narratively, Trouble Every Day is a plodding mess.
For a brief time, the presence of the hotel maid, Christelle (Florence Loiret-Caille), so much earthier and sexier than June (and also, by far the most interesting character in the film), throws some old-fashioned class struggle into the mix. In this context, Trouble Every Day also considers the threat posed by “dirty” sex; the women Shane wants to harass and/or chew on are all of the working or lower classes, from Christelle to an older woman on the bus to a garishly made-up blonde. They provide Shane with visceral satisfaction, while his angelic wife offers only unadventurous sex. Symbolism doesn’t get much blunter than June’s white kid gloves, an obvious visual contrast with Coré‘s sexy black slip or Christelle’s bright blue eye shadow. Like the truck drivers and teenage delinquents seduced and murdered by Coré, these women are disposable, while Leo (the doctor) is certainly not. Working this contrast all the way through might have been effective, but Denis has as much interest in these characters as Shane and Coré do: once they are killed, no one notices their absence.
In the film’s most effective scenes, Christelle struggles under the weight of Shane and June’s suitcases, as they walk behind her without offering help. As though invisible, she makes the bed while the couple cuddles intimately, and her vicious glares and efforts to ignore June’s patronizing attempts to be kind are refreshing affronts to Shane and June’s oppressive attitudes. Her eventual fate is chilling, but for the wrong reasons, functioning as a hint of the danger posed to June.
A friend who attended Trouble Every Day with me remarked that he would have liked to see the film end with the cannibals devouring each other. Although the violence in the film is already indulgent, in some ways, I couldn’t agree more. Without that sort of unflinching consummation, Trouble Every Day is comprised mostly of simplistic dominant/submissive sexual power plays. As for Coré, her libido has effectively overcome her personality, and she’s merely psychotic. In an attempt to re-envision the madwoman in the attic, Denis renders her almost silent and, worst of all, nothing more than mad.