A fleeting scene of Trouble Every Day finds one of its characters simply watching a match burn. Lighting it, Coré (Béatrice Dalle) brings the flame to her face, feeling the faint warmth against her cheek as its tiny beacon of light travels across the narrow length of wood bearing it. The film cuts away from her, and when it returns the match is gone, replaced only by the faint glimmer of an uncontained fire behind her: a fiery backdrop for her final moments before death. In many ways, these handful of shots – only lasting about thirty seconds of runtime in total – parallel her character’s tragic inability to reckon her need for affectionate intimacy with the violent sexual urges that envelop her. The scene also highlights a great deal of what the film has to say about desire, proposing it to be a consuming force of nature as fundamental and potentially dangerous to our existence as fire, one that must be expressed with the utmost control and reverence.
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, sexual desire is an inherently objectifying emotion, one that ignores if not outright denies a person’s humanity for another’s voyeuristic pleasure. In a way, lust shares much in common with aggression, an equally primal instinct whose logical conclusion – murder – runs fundamentally counter to the idea of empathy. And yet, most would agree that aggression and desire aren’t necessarily “bad” feelings, but natural ones. As biologically-programmed animal drives, they’re simply another part of our everyday lives we must learn to manage; such emotions only become problematic when left unchecked or bottled up. We exist above mere animals for this very reason: the rational ability to balance these two conflicting drives to create and destroy.
Claire Denis‘ Trouble Every Day (2001) and Marina de Van‘s In My Skin (2002) both explore this relationship between desire and aggression, but what makes them so radically unsettling is their proposition that these contrasting extremes are not polar opposites but two sides of the same coin. These films present characters trapped in a confusing limbo between lust and bloodlust, driven to horrifying violence by their deadly desires and yet nevertheless desperate for genuine human connection. One is a tragic tale of two people alienated from their relationships by carnivorous appetites, the other is a perverted parable of individual actualization that involves gruesome acts of self-mutilation and self-cannibalization.
Suffice to say, neither film makes for a comfortable viewing, yet it’s precisely because of their willingness to descend into such depraved depths of desperation and vulnerability that they’re so memorable. While they reach moments so uncomfortably grotesque that one may be compelled to avert their eyes, it would be intellectually dishonest to characterize either as exploitation – both Denis and de Van treat their subjects with far too much thought and respect to be outright dismissed as shock entertainers. Only by rendering and exorcising their characters’ ugliest impulses are the films capable of dissecting desire in such a profound way.
Like most of Claire Denis’ filmography, Trouble Every Day is about as impenetrable as a brick wall, a cryptic work whose vignette-style narrative threatens to constantly loop back on itself like a half-remembered dream. Describing the film’s minimal yet convoluted plot is about as difficult as following it on a first viewing. On the surface, it concerns the intertwining paths of Shane (Vincent Gallo) and Coré (Béatrice Dalle), two people suffering from a disease that confuses their libido with uncontrollable urges to literally eat their sexual partner. Shane has come to Paris (where Coré lives) under the guise of a honeymoon with his newly-wedded wife June (Tricia Vessey). His real motivation for traveling, however – to find Coré’s husband Leo (Alex Descas), a researcher he believes can cure his vampirism – is far more pressing.
Denis weaves the lives of these four characters together with such efficient and clinical grace that it’s almost impossible to register every thoughtful detail. Although the film is commonly lumped into the “New French Extremity”, a small movement of (mostly) horror films emphasizing sexuality and severe violence, Trouble Every Day is far from the well-crafted shockfests of Inside and Irreversible. Claire Denis never intended her film to be an unbearably nauseous experience, despite what reports of audience members fainting at the Cannes premiere might lead one to believe. All of her characters, from the four principal players to the minor souls that fatefully cross their paths, are humanized and treated with the utmost dignity. This was certainly a deliberate effort on Denis’ part. Since empathy must be discarded for Shane and Coré to fulfill their animalistic urges, the film’s overarching tragedy is seeing the two deny the humanity of their victims – and themselves – in the futile hopes of finding internal peace through violence.
This underlying dialogue between self-fulfillment and morality is what makes Trouble Every Day such a thoroughly engrossing and thought-provoking experience. Every aspect of its technical craft is at once haunting and in conversation with the film’s themes – Agnès Godard‘s chilly cinematography somehow both perpetuates and deconstructs the ravenous desire so obviously contained within its frame, while the jazzy soundtrack by Tindersticks seems to sing of a melancholic longing that will never be satisfied. Yet it’s the film’s uncomfortably intimate depictions of sexual violence that leave the most indelible impression. Denis presents the consummation of Shane and Coré’s desires in unwavering close-up, watching with a mixture of horror, disgust, and pity as they lose control of themselves, licking and biting and tearing at their victims’ flesh like rabid dogs. This, the film suggests, is the ultimate imbalance of human desire, the most egregious act of objectification, with lust and aggression subsumed into a singular and overwhelming urge to consume.
Marina de Van’s In My Skin, released just one year after Trouble Every Day, offers a wildly different yet complementary vision of unchecked desire as a disastrous force of nature. Less polished and more explicitly gruesome than Denis’ film, In My Skin poses a reverse scenario of primality run amok, directing the destructive impulses of its central character away from others and towards herself. The film follows Esther, a young woman (played by de Van in a remarkably vulnerable performance) who seems to have it all: a promising career, a stable boyfriend, and an active social life. One fateful night, she stumbles in the outside yard of a party and slices her leg open on a sheet of metal. Much to the disbelief of doctors and friends alike, she doesn’t even notice the alarming amount of blood running down her leg for several hours.
This injury arouses a perverse awakening within Esther, who becomes increasingly curious with the grisly gash and her apparent tolerance of its pain. A few days after the incident, she excuses herself from her desk and holes up in a supply closet, where she inexplicably and passionately begins to reopen her cuts with a sharp piece of metal. de Van shoots this initial discovery of self-mutilation plainly and without comment, allowing the physical curiosity emitted by her performance do all the work (it also should be noted that one of the key reasons this is not exploitation is de Van’s aversion to gratuitous close-ups of the acts themselves). Her boyfriend and work acquaintance are both predictably horrified by her self-inflicted cutting, which she admits came over her like a whim. After that initial taste of blood, it doesn’t take long for Esther’s irresistible urges to rapidly escalate into more appalling acts of self-mutilation and – more disgustingly – self-cannibalism, threatening to ruin her relationships and wreak irreversible damage on her body.
In its most literal reading, In My Skin portrays the devastating effects of any form of addiction. Viewed in this light, the film compellingly equates the idea of addiction with pure self-destruction. It’s no coincidence that as her nasty habit spirals out of control, Esther’s wounds extend to places on her body that she can’t hide in public – perhaps the clearest visual depiction of addiction one could fathom. And one of the film’s best and most uncomfortable scenes, which transpires during a business dinner, could just as easily have been re-edited to show a heroin addict itching for their next fix.
This addiction interpretation is certainly valid, but it ignores much of the film’s thoughtful meditation on desire, violence, and the body’s role in perpetuating both. In one interview for the film, Marina de Van brings up a particularly insightful anecdote from when she broke her leg as a child:
“I didn’t faint and I didn’t really feel pain. Instead, I saw my leg as if it weren’t a part of my body, as if it were an object. For me, then, it was a fascinating deformed object.”
Translating this thought to In My Skin, it becomes abundantly clear that this form of self-objectification is exactly how Esther is treating herself. The film’s sequences of self-mutilation and self-cannibalization are at once childishly curious and deeply sexual, transpiring mostly in hotel rooms like a shameful autoerotic affair with herself. More than anything found even in Trouble Every Day, these nauseating scenes represent a complete breakdown of control over Esther’s desires, a total inability to function in society with such overwhelming and taboo appetites. What can one even say to someone who has become sexually obsessed with carving off pieces of themselves to ogle and eat?
And why is Esther so uncontrollably attracted to hurting and eating herself? Is it narcissism? A means of escaping the weight of expectations enveloping her? A way of reaffirming autonomy over her body? Or just plain lust? “Aren’t you happy with your body?”, Esther’s boyfriend angrily asks in one scene. If Trouble Every Day proposes that violence directed against others is the end result of desire, then In My Skin defines it oppositely as a dangerous force of nature that, taken to its most vile extreme, literally eats one alive. The two films further differ in their conclusions. While Trouble Every Day’s final moments only manage to offer a temporary, doubtful catharsis to Shane’s bloodlust, In My Skin’s concluding scene is unexpectedly tranquil, maybe even signifying a perverse internal peace for Esther.
Quite understandably, most people will never want to watch either of these films. Although neither dwells on graphic violence for its own sake, both are indeed tremendously uncomfortable works of art. They present the boundary between our ugliest primal instincts and our most lovingly sensual and then obliterate it, suggesting we were fools to presume its existence in the first place. They examine human intimacy in extreme close-up, diffusing and diffracting images of passion and violence until they uneasily start to look the same. At the very center of all this pleasure and pain is the body – the object, source, and perpetuator of great violence and powerful desire alike. Through their terrible, beautiful films, Claire Denis and Marina de Van locate a profound sadness within the horrific aftermath of aggressive lust. If nothing else, Trouble Every Day and In My Skin hope for a world in which we don’t feel so alienated from ourselves and others, one in which we regard our bodies and the bodies of others with the respect and dignity they so desperately deserve.