Film studies

Twenty years of Trouble Every Day (2001)

Kate Robertson delves into Claire Denis’ divisive sixth feature film two decades after its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

Directed by Claire Denis, Trouble Every Day (2001) is a challenging film both in terms of its narrative and filmmaking. Two scientists—Shane and Core—are afflicted with an unnatural hunger produced by a plant they found on a research expedition, which amplifies desire to the point that sex leads to cannibalism. While visiting Paris on his honeymoon, Shane ignores his new wife June as he searches for Core and her husband Leo, who led the research. The elliptical narrative is low on exposition, with the viewer positioned too close too the story. A slow build-up of unease culminates in two horrific acts of violence that are, arguably, unwatchable. The response to Trouble Every Day was overwhelmingly negative. Yet, responses to the film have changed over the past two decades as it has been discovered and re-evaluated by an audience that, while small, is vehemently supportive.

Trouble Every Day premiered at midnight on 13 May 2001 out of competition at the Cannes Film Festival. The screening was reportedly met with booing, walk-outs, and, most scandalously, two women in the audience fainted, inserting it into an infamous history of films so distressing that an ambulance was called. This incident drew the attention of many critics – Thomas Sotinel even dedicated his review in Le Monde to these women. The overwhelmingly negative response to the premiere situates Trouble Every Day in a history of films panned at the festival, including Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Jane Campion’s Sweetie (1989), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990) and David Cronenberg’s Crash (1997).

The film opened in French cinemas on 11 July 2001, and then screened around the world, primarily at festivals, including Toronto International Film Festival (September 2001), Sitges Film Festival (October 2001), International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 2002), Mar del Plata Film Festival (March 2002) and Melbourne International Film Festival (August 2003). It had limited US releases in November 2001 and March 2002 and in the UK in December 2002. Outside of France, the film was maligned by critics who described it variously as ‘a risible disaster’, ‘an artistic flop’, ‘vacuous’, ‘silly’, ‘pretentious’ and ‘dull’. [1]

Review aggregator sites help to track responses to Trouble Every Day, which is Denis’s lowest rated film on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes and second lowest on IMDB and Letterboxd. As of July 2021, Rotten Tomatoes calculates that only 50% of critic reviews were positive, with Metacritic even lower at 40%. Interestingly, these scores have risen slightly over time, from 48% in September 2004 and 36% in January 2012, respectively. User ratings are slightly more favourable on IMDB, with a current score of 6/10 (based on 7481 reviews). This also improved slightly, from 5.6/10 in June 2004. It is worth noting that 566 viewers – or 7.6% total, rated it 10/10. They are higher again on Letterboxd, perhaps the best of these sites to track highly engaged viewers, with an average of 3.4 stars (based on 9125 ratings). The results on French aggregator AlloCiné are a little different. The viewer rating is similarly low, at 2.5 stars, but for critics it lifts significantly to 4.2. This disparity supports the overall impression that French critics were impressed by the film and suggests that they might have been the most familiar with Denis’ work and style.

So, why was Trouble Every Day so poorly received upon its release? One important factor is that it followed Beau Travail (1999), arguably Denis’ most celebrated film and one that had cemented her international reputation. This was always going to be difficult to follow. However, it is unlikely that many predicted Denis’ next film would feature cannibalism. Trouble Every Day is certainly a difficult film to watch. There is minimal dialogue and it is low on exposition. Viewers are forced to piece together the story, which raises more questions than it answers, and then denied a cathartic conclusion. As the film cannot be firmly situated in a single genre, it is even more difficult to make sense of. This inevitably informed the critical reception of Trouble Every Day; as an art-horror film, many expected something different. Viewers anticipating an art film – like the audience at Cannes – might have been shocked by the gore and its alignment with the horror genre more broadly (which critics frequently approach with derision and dismissal). While horror fans would generally be more familiar with this brutality and gore – especially those versed in New French Extremity – they may be less accustomed to the slow pace and lack of explanation. However, even these viewers might be repelled by these lengthy scenes of graphic violence. Several critics disliked Vincent Gallo in the role of Shane, who had the most screen time, which may also have been shaped by his controversial public personality.

The initial opinions about Trouble Every Day have slowly shifted in the two decades since it was released. Limited theatrical release meant that it took a long time for some viewers to access the film, often waiting for VHS or DVD media to become available in their regions.  More recently, it has reached new audiences through streaming platforms. Trouble Every Day regularly appears in lists about topics such as horror cinema, art-horror, controversial films and women filmmakers. It is also mentioned in reviews of more recent films, such as Julia Decorneau’s Raw (2017). Some viewers would have sought the film out because of its place in the New French Extremity movement and would have been prepared for the violence. Through the 2010s, art-horror films became more familiar to a wider audience, such as Under the Skin (Glazer, 2013), A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Amirpour, 2014), The Witch (Eggers, 2016) and The Neon Demon (Refn, 2016). While Trouble Every Day remains polarising, it is interesting not despite, but because of this. The intensely divergent feelings about the film both inform Denis’ filmography and establish its importance in genre cinema.

For more information on Trouble Every Day by Kate Robertson visit our website.

[1] Peter Bradshaw, ‘Trouble Every Day’, The Guardian, 19 December, 2002; Derek Elley, ‘Trouble Every Day’, Variety, 14 May, 2001; Mick LaSalle, ‘Film Clips’, San Francisco Gate, April 5, 2002; Alexander Walker, ‘No Real Bite’, London Evening Standard, November 26, 2002; J. Hoberman, ‘An Actor’s Revenge’, Village Voice, February 26, 2002; Philip French, ‘Trouble Every Day’, The Guardian, 29 December, 2002.


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