2004Director: Claire Denis
Cast: Michel Subor, Gregoire Colin, Beatrice Dalle
y dreaming-awake position of filmmaking is not an attitude or position I like. It is something that is happening to me. I am not convinced that I have to go on like that forever. On the contrary, I’m really trying to fight that. I am a dreamy person. I have never been totally in real life, I think. I have never felt familiar anywhere. -- Claire Denis
There’s a very specific sort of restlessness pervading the films of Claire Denis. In terms of subject, they’re all over the map—from cannibalistic sexual predators to Foreign Legion officers stationed in Eastern Africa to strangers connecting in the Paris night—but they’re all populated by lonely, fatally incomplete individuals attempting to make sense of the world around them. The calmness of these films’ surfaces and the lush sensuality of their images contrast hauntingly with the muted inner turmoil of Denis’s world-weary characters. “I’m not here / This isn’t happening,” sang Radiohead’s Thom Yorke. It could serve as a mantra for Denis.
The Intruder, adapted from Jean-Luc Nancy’s novel, L’Intrus, represents a bold apotheosis of this familiar theme. Denis’s relationship with conventional narrative form has long been, at best, tenuous, but here, she strays from it almost entirely. In the same interview I’ve quoted from above (conducted by Film Comment editor Gavin Smith), Denis noted, “…when you take away a scene in between two scenes that you were not sure of, suddenly, by contact, those two scenes become much better.” It’s a seemingly simple strategy, but one that few active filmmakers could pull off with any semblance of grace. Denis, with invaluable assistance from DP extraordinaire Agnes Godard and editor Nelly Quettier, makes it look downright easy. There isn’t another director in the Western Hemisphere making movies so richly fluid in their sense of possibility and wide-open spaces. A shot of a woman driving a pack of Malamutes across an Arctic landscape may follow the serene image of a ship floating on the Pacific. Watching a Claire Denis film feels less like trying to find your way out of a maze than traveling down every possible path, regardless of where it may lead.
The plot in Denis’s latest has something to do with an older gentleman (Michel Subor, who played a smaller role in Beau Travail) who lives alone with his dogs and hooks up with a local pharmacist for casual sex. Alienated from his son and daughter-in-law and troubled by physical health problems, he leaves his home near the French-Swiss border in search of a new heart and a son he may have fathered decades ago in Tahiti. He finds the former, receiving a transplant operation in Korea; the latter proves more difficult to locate.
That’s all good and well, but what The Intruder is actually “about,” above all else, is the deliberate progression of images and sounds. Even with content so obviously ripe for symbolic plundering, Denis opts for subtlety—for moments or, more specifically, the purposeful juxtaposition and carefully calculated rhythm of interwoven shots and scenes. A story such as this one would typically be played for straight, tear-jerking drama; Denis resplices it into genuine mystery. How, for instance, does Beatrice Dalle’s dog-breeder/sled-driver factor into the narrative? Don’t ask me. All I know is that IMDb credits her as “Queen of the Northern Hemisphere.”
The “intruder” of the film’s title is both Subor’s Louis invading the island paradise, and the new heart planted inside his body. In a broader sense, it may also refer to man’s relationship with the natural world. Like Terrence Malick, Denis is fascinated by the idea of sophisticated human existence penetrating the untapped harmony of nature, and after two consecutive films shot in urban locations, she’s clearly in her element here. Louis is Denis’s Odysseus (or Leopold Bloom), out to reclaim some fragment of his past. But it’s the trip, not the destination, that counts, and he never appears less than ill at ease, forced constantly to negotiate with his surroundings. As Sean Penn’s character observed in The Thin Red Line, “In this world, a man, himself, is nothing. And there ain't no world but this one.”