Monday, December 6, 2010

The Intruder

Claire Denis' The Intruder takes the director's sensual minimalism to its extremity, carving an entire film out of her tactile, elliptical direction at the expense of plot. Based on philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy's autobiographical, post-structuralist essay of the same name, L'Intrus for the most part lacks even the recurring symbols that anchor her other features. The only constants are characters, about whom we learn nearly nothing.

What's impressive about Denis' staging is that L'Intrus still feels remarkably light-footed for its lack of clear-cut narrative. Denis' primary strength as a filmmaker is her ability to frame the human body in inventive and evocative manners, and she filters Nancy's philosophical text through an emotional lens, balancing an intellectualism that matches up with some of her own recurring themes with her most delicate, tantalizing imagery. The result is nothing less than a masterpiece.

L'Intrus opens with a Russian woman offering a précis of the film, solemnly whispering, "Your worst enemies are hiding inside, in the shadow, in your heart" before moving to an unconnected image of a country road, the tranquility of which is interrupted by warning signs and a guard post. We see a customs official search a vehicle traveling from France into Switzerland, beginning the dialectical juxtaposition that defines much of the film's editing. Denis follows the border guard home to her husband and two young children. The husband gently seduces his wife with a story about them making love in the forest before plopping her down on his "branch." Then, Denis abruptly cuts to the forest outside as an old man bathes in a waterfall with his dogs nearby. Idyllic, panoramic views of the man, Louis Trebor (Michel Subor), contrast with shaky, hand-held POV shots of some scarcely seen stalker, particularly when Louis floats in a lake (Denis loves to shoot people floating in water; it makes people so serene, yet so vulnerable).

Then, the old man does some strokes in the lake, and something at last happens. Clearly, he has a heart attack while swimming, only just making it ashore to ride out the pain. A bit later, he heads to an abandoned shack in the same secluded area as his own tucked-away cabin and leaves a message in Russian that he needs the emergency procedure. There's a hint of playfulness to this skullduggery, Denis' way of misdirecting the audience to make something that should, frankly, be fascinating -- the heart transplant Louis requests from this sinister black market -- cinematically palatable before burying the thriller aspects in indecipherable opacity. The Intruder may not have a narrative, but the director will at least be kind enough to tease us with one.

But her main focus, as with the source essay, are the philosophical implications of receiving a heart transplant. Thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, man himself can now become a metaphorical Ship of Theseus, an object whose parts are replaced until one questions whether it remains the original subject. Louis not only requests a heart from the shadowy organization tailing him but a young heart, ensuring that he inherits the flesh of someone totally different than him (ultimately, he receives a young woman's heart, further emphasizing the split). The Ship of Theseus quandary forces one to ask whether an object whose parts have been systematically replaced can still be thought of as the original source. In these cases, we must not only ask whether Louis is the same person but whether he even is a human being anymore.

Ergo, the heart becomes an intruder in Louis' body, though if it does corrupt and alter Louis, it's doubtful anyone would mind the change. Though we receive marginally more clues about his past than any of the side characters who flutter about as if the cast of a fever dream, Louis tacitly reveals a dark past, possibly as a murderer. Occasionally, the camera moves not into moments of fantasy but subjective perception, showing Louis suddenly stabbing his pharmacist lover, only for the next shot to show her breathing in bed next to him. That disturbing side exacerbates the feelings of disconnect he emits when he travels abroad, first to Korea for the surgery, then to Tahiti to track down a long-lost son (thus intruding on his child's life).

The changed locales bring out the flip side of intrusion and secrecy: intense loneliness. Louis' harsh intensity makes him a fit for his secluded cabin in the wilderness, but the urban bustle and politeness of South Korea makes him look like a freak. Even the businessmen who meet with him are convivial and ingratiating. The cool blue that hung over the first act gives way to a neon glow that washes out Louis' menace. When he leaves for Tahiti, Denis gets away with infusing the film with one of her biggest themes, post-colonialism. Korea, never a Western colony but once under Japanese rule, looks more sophisticated and wealthy than the backwoods of France from whence Louis came. Tahiti is poorer, to be sure, but the bustle is electric. Tahiti's incandescent waters prove even more of a bad fit for Louis than Korea.

Still, for all of Louis' isolation, there exists possibilities for communication that would not have been possible in the colonial days. The old man meets a Korean as an equal in a restaurant when the kind Korean man briefly bonds with the protagonist over an Elvis song. The secret organization's ability to move back and forth at will across the landscapes reveals how easily one can now travel the world, a convenience that exacerbates feelings of loneliness by rapidly thrusting people into alien environments but also opening the possibility of connection. Louis might simply be too old to readjust.

Like memories, L'Intrus can capture minute, trivial minutiae in exacting detail but also leave massive, glaring omissions in linearity. The poetic realism allows for straightforward shots that morph into abstractions without warning or transition. The Russian woman who intoned the opening lines heads the team of covert operatives who trail Louis interacts with him and appears to be instrumental in securing the old man's new heart, yet she takes on an otherworldly quality. She hangs over Louis like death, or maybe his conscience, finally come home to torment its master. Though she has dialogue and direct contact with other characters, she reminded me of the silent young man outside the apartment complex in Kieslowski's The Decalogue, the spectral observer who looks upon the other characters with grave judgment. Denis' camera can form unconventional yet suggestive pairings, mixing the freckles on the pharmacist's face with the liver spots on Louis' back as the two make love or turning money into both the common denominator among the various locations and also the object that most separates people.* Her camera never sits still, and when it does slow down, it's only to capture the intense inner movement and turmoil behind the characters' eyes.

Even the more natural and real moments of the film have their stretched dimensions. Louis heads to Tahiti to find the son he never knew, but the man wants nothing to do with him. It's possible that the son isn't actually in Tahiti, and even that Louis doesn't have a son at all. Maybe this Tahitian lovechild is just Louis' way of not taking care of the estranged son who definitely exists (the husband of the border guard back in France) A friend from Trebor's past then holds auditions among local men to play the part of Louis' son. The people who come and stand before a panel cannot be actors: they're too shy, too confused by the whole thing, to be extras mugging for their five seconds. But the nature of their auditions is so odd that it turns this bit of documentary into one of the most ephemeral and abstract moments of the whole film.

Furthermore, the use of film history reveals the director's ability to place the questions her film raises within a larger context of cinematic metaphysics. Denis never uses film quotation out of the enthusiasm that marks, say, De Palma or Scorsese's reverence, but she has the same ability to reshape meaning from canon films. A shot of the Russians back around Louis' empty shack hunting vaguely recalls The Rules of the Game, while Denis uses clips from an unfinished film by Paul Gégauff, 1965's Le Reflux, to provide flashback material for Louis' time in Tahiti as a younger man (the clips feature a young Subor). This trick, reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's flashback tactic in The Limey, recognizes Subor as a distinct entity from his character, suggesting that the actor intrudes upon the character's life and that the complicated pasts of everyone involved should be considered. By admitting that someone else occupies the character, Denis can deepen her questions of the nature of the soul and the sense of profound loneliness that pervades the film. Louis already exists as a heartless man, someone whose immoral past corrupts him until he finally gets a functioning heart, which softens him for a time until his body at last rejects the organ. The split between Subor and Trebor compounds the unalterable course of this hollow man: he has no soul, and if someone else does not possess him, he's even more directionless.

The film, particularly its last, tropics-set act, owes a debt to the work of Paul Gauguin, and L'Intrus unfolds as a post-impressionist, principally synthetist, work. It is a film of lines and colors but no shape until it all the elements come together. Thus, The Intruder always feels as if it's still being assembled to the end, underlined by a minimalist score from frequent collaborator Stuart Staples of Tindersticks that also feels as if it's still in the writing phase. Denis is honest about this construction, revealing her aims in the manner in which she displays the title: she has a flashlight dart wildly over a black screen, revealing portions of the letters that make up the title until the red letters finally glow in full. Then, for a brief moment, she returns to the initial method of showing the word, suggesting that even when we get the full picture, we must still suss out some aspects of the film's makeup. It might explain why the film ends not on the somber, unseen and unremarked finale of Louis' life but on a shot of his neighbor (Béatrice Dalle), a young dog trainer he unsuccessfully attempted to seduce, sledding with her dogs. It's as much of a throwaway as any scene in the film's collage of moods and feelings over concrete images, but it somehow fits even as it raises yet more questions about this dense film I cannot yet hope to answer. However, it's always helpful when films like this make the prospect of repeated study seem so delightful and irresistible.

*Money is the only thing that keeps Louis and his genuine son together back in France -- the son calls his dad a lunatic but pockets the latest conciliatory payment as he does all the rest -- yet Louis' attempt to pay off his "son" in Tahiti leads the local hired to impersonate the mystery man to balk and run away. For Louis, still unaware of the truth behind the young man who visits him in the hospital, this signifies his son rejecting him just as his heart rejects his body.


  1. This is a fantastic piece, Jake. I love this film, it's one of Denis' very best and also her most complex and dense. Only Denis would have the intellectual rigor and gumption to adapt into a feature film what is, essentially, a philosophical essay about the dissociation of identity that occurs in relation to modern medical procedures, as well as the various alienations of immigration. Nancy's (fascinating) essay provides the unspoken core of the film, the ideas around which Denis builds her evocative, mysterious images. One thing she of course runs with, given her own concerns, is the idea of immigration and nationality as a component of identity, how the immigrant is seen as an intruder much as the transplanted heart is an intruder within the body. Louis goes to all these foreign places as an intruder — just like a tourist is an intruder, and a colonial power is an intruder — while back at home in France, forces are aligned on the border to keep such unwanted intruders out, even though they get in anyway, sneaking around in the woods around Louis' home.

    There are so many iterations of the intruder in this film that it often seems like Denis is toying with all the possible meanings of the word. It's most interesting, I think, in relation to film history, which as you discuss she uses in very complex ways. Among other things, she's calling attention to Subor as an actor, an actor with a past and a long history of appearances in film. She did the same thing with him in Beau travail, there explicitly casting him as an older version of the same man he played, long ago, in Godard's Petit soldat, imagining what the character would be like when he got old. Here, she doesn't give him the same name, but it's still possible to see Louis as another iteration of Godard's revolutionary-turned-reactionary, here in disguise, running from that shady past.

  2. Yeah, I loved how so many images were just her way of visualizing themes outside any narrative thread. Those returning shots to the border, the Elvis bit, it makes feeling out of the intellectualism of a philosophic text. It was a beautiful thing to behold -- I was actually meant to be studying for an exam, but I couldn't stop thinking about it and just needed to purge my thoughts quickly so I could get back to school focus. I would have liked to have gone into those shots you mention, of those shadowy figures milling around the border, but that just gives me one more reason to keep watching this amazing film and come back with some added analysis down the road.

    I saw Beau Travail before Le Petit Soldat and need to return to it soon. Hitting three of Denis' films in such close proximity has shown me what an incredible filmmaker she is and what range she can handle. By the time I work my way back, she might be right up there with my favorite filmmakers.

  3. God, I need to rewatch this -- you do an amazing job of dissecting the metaphysical underpinnings of the film. You can tell by your writing here just how enthralled you were with what Denis accomplished.

    I was so perplexed on my initial viewing, yet still remained mesmerized by the imagery and Denis' ability to evoke so much emotion and food for thought out of seemingly nothing (even if you don't get what's going on, she strives to make you THINK about what is going on). Alas, I wasn't able to gather what you yourself gleaned from the film and need to watch it again in the proper frame of mind. You've made me want to make that a priority now...

  4. Hey Troy, good to see you back around these parts. I think it helped that I had seen two Denis films back to back and at least had a basis for her style to go on. If I'd just been thrown into this I would have been bewildered. But man did I love this film. I need another watch to be sure, but I'm already clearing room on my top 10 of the decade for it. It's just a masterpiece.