Thursday, October 02, 2008

Claire Denis: Trouble Every Day


Are love and lust mutually contradictory ideas? Hannah Arendt (quoting St. Augustine) said that to her "I love you" meant the same as "I want you to be." Just affirming other's existence seems like nothing out of ordinary but there is something much deeper in the notion. Sexual desire by its very nature seems to imply that one uses other person for one's own gratification, which in turn is the same as denying other person's autonomy and identity as a human being. This was the main problem that Kant had with sex - he thought any non-procreative sex violated one of his categorical imperatives, which says "Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end." (See here for more). He thought that recreational sex was morally permissible only under an explicit contract which to him was marriage and which he defined as, "the union of two persons of different sex for life-long reciprocal possession of their sexual faculties." Bummer, isn't it (and controversial too)?

Anyway coming back to the film in question, Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day takes the same notion of lust as extinguishing other's identity and autonomy to extremes. Actually the intellectual conceit in the film is nothing exceptional even though it may look like it at first glance. I mean one often hears the phrase "overcome by devouring lust", she just takes it to literal and very gory extremes. Yes, the film shows lust as (literal) cannibalism. Shane (played by Vincent Gallo sporting a terrific looking moustache) is in Paris for his honeymoon but there is an unspoken tension between him and his wife because they haven't consummated their marriage yet. He is harbouring a terrible secret that he can't speak of. Because of some mysterious experiment (never spelt out clearly) his sexual lust has transformed into a lust for flesh (literally). He is in Paris looking out for a certain Dr. Leos hoping to find a cure. The doctor is having a similar trouble at home because his wife Core (played by Beatrice Dalle, as usual at her nutty best) is plagued by a similar disease. She lures unsuspecting people using her body and then eats them. Talk about femme fatale!

As the story outline above would suggest the film is pretty extreme. I have seen two of her other films, Beau Travail and L'Intrus, both of which are similarly headscratching and very difficult films. Some would call her pretentious and deliberately frustrating (including me) but one can't deny the obvious skill and mastery of the craft on display. There is hardly any dialogue in this film, and even the few ones are totally non-expository. The editing is fragmented and full of narrative ellipsis so you will keep guessing what is happening and why someone is behaving the way they are. She doesn't explain anything in a straightforward manner. The other star of the film is her regular cinematographer Agnes Godard. She has such a great sense of texture and mood and beauty in surfaces. The other potentially frustrating thing would be to see it as a horror film. She does use motifs and ideas from horror genre but deliberately confounds viewer's expectations and not just because the tone is so distanced, cold and clinical. This will most certainly disappoint those who look for gore in horror films. There are actually only two scenes but both very graphic, which may inspire both disgust and laughter (at least it did to this viewer). Certainly a very interesting film and worth having an opinion on, even though one may not like it. I certainly didn't. May be David Cronenberg should have tried this idea. Crash - Part II? An essay on the film here which tries to place it in the horror genre.

16 comments:

dan visel said...

Have you seen the Jean-Luc Nancy essay on the film at http://www.film-philosophy.com/ ? Maybe I found that here, I can't remember . . .

Alok said...

thanks for the tip. I googled and found it (pdf link). Now let me see if i can understand what he is saying. L'Intrus was also based on his work. It went mostly over my head though!

foldedletters said...

Bizarre. So, I'm interested more in your opinion that sex is all about one taking another's autonomy? Maybe you've been having the wrong kind. It can be about that, of course. But can't it be about a unified autonomy?

Alok said...

I am not having much sex but that is irrelevant here.

It is more a way of looking at things. I agree there can a "spiritual" element in sexual desire which can unify rather than alienate but the fact of using other person's body for deriving physical pleasure remains morally problematic, even when other person is more than willing to participate, for variety of reasons. One is still *using* the other person or letting oneself be *used*.

You can check here for more extensive treatment of the subject from both pessimistic and optimistic approaches.

foldedletters said...

To be "used" or "using"? That's a very sad way of looking at sexual desire. Instead of sex, let's talk about conversation. If I want to talk to someone, it's not about me taking something from the other person to gratify my intellectual thirst (so long as they want to talk back). It's no different with sex. "You desire me, I desire you." Both people want each other. Together. There doesn't have to be a user or a used.

Alok said...

yes I agree, it is a rather pessimistic way of looking at sexual desire. I personally don't see it that way either but one has to acknowledge that there are more complex things happening behind the simple act.

What you mention for example, the desire which is fully reciprocated - that doesn't happen always. And I am not even talking of prostitution here. Wife agreeing to sex just because she doesn't want to disappoint her husband...?

then there is another issue of how desire creates a mental image of the beloved in the head and one then tries to impose that image on the real person. You might have seen Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo for example. Happens all the time. Just to conform to other person's desire, people forgo their real identities. It is nice to say that one should love a person for who she or he really is but it doesn't always happen in reality. It is actually quite hard to do.

foldedletters said...

Why is sex so interesting? I'm thinking aloud to myself right now. And this conversation is exactly what makes it so fascinating. It's the fact that we are all separate. We cannot see into one another's heads. We cannot feel what the other person is feeling. We may project onto the other person. Or we may be like the wife, pleasuring her husband, just to keep him "happy". But, true and meaningful sex should not be about ideas and motives. The act should be about forgetting. Borders and edges and power and "me" and "you". And it should be about remembering. Remembering a familiar line, smell, taste of your lover. Movement, breath. It should be the physical bodies touching. And the intuitive bodies sharing. Dropping guard. Trusting the other to come completely close. Without harm.

I agree, there are obviously times when sex is one-sided. ie prostitution, abuse, bad relationships, etc But, I'm speaking as an idealist. About how sex should be.

Also, on your thoughts about love and identity. Those are two extremely complex things. But, to me, when two people love one another. They sit and walk side by side. There is always change and they may reflect off one another differently, but they still walk forward in tandem. To love someone, is not the same as "liking" all their personality traits. To love is to want to be with the person always, regardless. It's a deeper tie, and it does not require anyone to "forego their identities". Or conform to expectations. It just is.

Alok said...

glad to hear such affirming thoughts. the world will indeed be a happy place if we could all follow what you say.

One can be pessimistic and full of dark thoughts but that serves a purpose too. You won't know what "white" is, unless you are familiar with the "black". What I mentioned in my post and comments are all things one should be careful to resist and avoid. I do believe it is possible to do, if at the same time not so easy.

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