Claire Denis as horror director

Curator's Note

Acclaimed for her intimate, subtle dramas, Claire Denis is not normally named in celebrations of women making genre films. While recent science-fiction film High Life (2019) may change that, I want to draw attention to her earlier experimentation with genre in the film Trouble Every Day (2001). In Trouble Every Day, a French couple and an American couple suffer from the same problem: one partner is afflicted with a disease that drives them to cannibalism.

Trouble Every Day became one of the emblems of the New French Extremity, but including it in discussions of female-directed horror is instructive. The film sits on the very edge of the horror genre, behaving like an art film in every way aside from its intertwining of gore and lust. Recent stabs at delineating the horror genre, like the coinage of “post horror” to indicate high-brow or auteur-identified horror films, would gain much-needed perspective by acknowledging true limit cases like Trouble Every Day.

Trouble Every Day lacks the formal markers of a horror film. Jump scares, screeching violins, and chase scenes are absent; instead, the film has a relaxed pace, minimal dialogue, and delayed exposition. As seen in the accompanying clip, gore does not come wrapped in conventional packaging. Newlyweds Shane and June are on an airplane traveling to Paris. Most of the passengers are asleep and Shane locks himself in the lavatory, eight minutes into the film. He dreams of lying in bed with his new wife, both of them wet with blood, in bedsheets soaked through with red, red blood. This grotesque vision is not heightened by music or sound effect, as it would be in most horror films; it is accompanied only by the mundane drone of the jet engine.

In addition to lacking familiar stylistic elements of horror, the plot of Trouble Every Day does not follow a conventional arc. Rather than building up tension toward a confrontation between a hero and a monstrous figure, causal linkages are loosened as Shane wanders Paris. Not until halfway through the film do we learn that he is hunting a cure to his cannibalistic desires. The presentation of women in close-up, with appetizing faces and napes, intimates that Shane might be looking for a meal as well.

The climax of the film finds Shane succumbing to his inner monster. He finds Christelle in the basement of the hotel. They kiss, and Christelle seems eager for Shane’s touch. But soon her sighs turn to screams. Christelle kicks at Shane as he begins to bite her body and face while penetrating her. Then she is dead, covered in blood, her eyes open. Shane drags her corpse away and wipes his face and hands on a pile of white hotel towels. His desire is relieved, and his wife is safe. For now.

Apart from its subject matter, Trouble Every Day dispenses with most stylistic and narrative indicators of horror films. Upon its initial release, this led most critics to dismiss it for the double sin of being “purposefully shocking… [and] unintentionally dull.” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice) But the film’s uneasy genre positioning increases its value for those historicizing “elevated genre” films, especially those made by women directors. 


This is an awesome analysis, Nora, thanks so much for your contribution! 

I'm really thrilled that you've considered Claire Denis as a horror director - I feel like "Trouble Every Day" is often times forgotten in discussions of horror/New French Extremity (as opposed to films like "Martyrs" and "High Tension"), so I'm glad you dedicated your analysis here to the film.  I wanted to get your insight on Denis' films as a whole - do you think that traces of horror can be found in some of her other, non-traditional "horror" films?  Something like "White Material" comes to mind here, where the horrors of colonialism, and the residual trauma that develops from it, linger throughout the narrative.  Can Denis' work overall be considered a part of the horror genre, even when she moves away from New French Extremity? 

Hi Erica,

Thanks for reading! I'd hesitate to include most of her other work in the horror genre. White Material is a character study in a realistic setting. So, while there are glimpses of the horrors of colonialism and civil unrest, those horrors are not portrayed as the result of a supernatural force, a scientific experiment gone wrong, or an evil/monstrous figure. 

I Can't Sleep might be a better contender, since one of the characters is a serial killer, but it's been awhile since I've seen it... Do you think High Life should be called horror rather than sci-fi?

Your analysis of the airplane scene is fascinating, and I really appreciate that you're placing Claire Denis within the canon of female-directed horror. Although I haven't seen High Life yet, I have noticed a lot of flirtation with between horror, genre film tropes, and art films across much of Denis's work--I Can't Sleep, as you mentioned in reply to Erica, but also Bastards, Beau Travail, No Fear No Die, and even Friday Night. I agree with you that Denis is a kind of "secret" genre director.

You also specifically mention that Trouble Every Day marks Denis as a horror director, but also as belonging to the canon of women-directed horror because, as you write, "The film sits on the very edge of the horror genre, behaving like an art film in every way aside from its intertwining of gore and lust." You also mention this in regard to the film's "uneasy genre positioning." Are there other female-directed horror films that you would place alongside Trouble Every Day, visually, tonally, or in terms of genre positioning?

Thanks for your response, Nora!  Your explanation of Denis' work makes a lot of sense. 

I guess I sort of understood horror in this case to be on more of a spectrum, not only including traditional tropes like monsters but also considering like psychological, etc. horrors.  So, I would suppose that films like High Life, etc. can be considered a blend of sci-fi and horror, rather than simply horror proper.  If that makes sense!

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