The number of scribes squeezing into the press room after a Cannes Film Festival world premiere is a quick indicator of the international press's enthusiasm for the unveiled work. Alas, it was simple to locate a seat last May for a conference with filmmaker Claire Denis and her crew cinematographer Agnes Godard, actors Alex Descas and Florence Loiret-Caille after the first Cannes 2001 showing of Trouble Every Day.
I genuinely appreciated this transgressive foray into the world of horror by France's Denis (Chocolat, Beau Travail), perhaps the most significant of contemporary woman filmmakers. Other critics, including admirers of Beau Travail, were put off by Trouble Every Day, finding the shifting stories of an obsessed scientist and several cannibalistic sexual predators in Paris not only incoherent but sickening in the intensity of the violence and gore. Does Denis really care about a denigrated genre, the blood-soaked vampire movie?
She does. "It wasn't incongruous for us to walk down this avenue of cinema. We sought an adventure at the frontier of the poetry of horror," Denis explained at Cannes, revealing a Surrealist aesthetic. "[Trouble in Mind] is part of the film tradition of the scientific mystery and quest, like Them, with those giant ants in Los Angeles.
"We also represent the heritage of Jacques Tourneur [Hollywood "B" director of The Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, Curse of the Demon]. I prefer Tourneur most of all for exploring the relationship cinema has with desire and sexuality. I like to watch that kind of film, and those of Dario Argento. David Cronenberg is important to me, for looking into the body as a complex universe, all those liquids a territory to be explored by cinema.
This script originated a few years ago with James Schamus, who wanted to produce [in English]a series of low-budget horror movies, including films for me and Cindy Sherman. What interested him, I got the impression, was an ironic approach. But I'm not interested in such an approach, and there's a postmodern trend which I detest. I don't want to stand back from a work, but to live for several years in the domain of a film. A reason I like Dario Argento is because he's not ironic."
Denis' director of photography, Agnes Varda, was asked about their long-time artistic collaboration. Varda: "Claire and I try to get into the universe of the film, in this case a gore-type story filled with fear in which the words in the text suggest cold, semi-darkness. Claire is a filmmaker who relies mostly on images to tell her stories. There's something we feel together in the mystery of the cinema, the mystery of the dark moon."
Denis agreed. "We're both rather shy, not very talkative. We choose what can be said in the camera without words." In Trouble Every Day? "We saw the water at night going under the bridges on the Seine, like a vessel of blood. We tried to find this kind of dark black blood for our film. There's a kiss, then a bite, though it's not cannibalism but the world of ethnography. The drive of desire. The kiss and bite is the relation of baby to mother, who wants to eat the baby with love."
Was such bloodlust frightening to the actors? "Claire told me I had to trust her," said Loiret-Caille, who is mangled by Vincent Gallo in an especially horrifying scene. "I had no concern," said the French-African Descas. "I've made several films with Claire before. She's a director who gets important roles for the black community."
"Alex is also a painter," Denis added, "and I wonder if his paintings have influenced the film. I've got some at home with bodies, and wounds on bodies. There's also a painting in my office with a color that belongs to him specifically: 'Alex's red.'"
Boston Phoenix, May 2002