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Thread: Claire Denis: L'Intrus/The Intruder (2004)

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    Claire Denis: L'Intrus/The Intruder (2004)

    Raw material

    Amidst the mostly conventional American movies of the Christmas season, watching Claire Denis’ new one is like taking a plunge in cold, fresh water. It begins with a series of visceral experiences – swimming, riding a bike, sex. There are beautiful sled dogs in the woods and a dope-sniffing customs dog managed by an attractive young woman. There’s a murder, a serious operation, and somebody is dragged bloody through the snow, none of this with any explanation. On the other hand a gentle husband coaxes his wife into bed and the camera later watches as he tenderly carries a baby across a field. The physicality is intense, unmediated much of the time by dialogue – or clear narrative links. The bare experience hits you and you realize how strong and simple and beautiful filmmaking can be, without any special expense or big crews: just a camera and a few actors and a clear eye and you’re there.

    Eventually some connectives emerge. The customs dog belongs to Antoinette (Florence Loiret). Sidney (Grégoire Colin, who costarred in Denis’ Nénette et Boni and contributed notably to the beefcake poetry of her Beau Travail) is her house-husband, caring for their two little babies and tending to her erotic needs as soon as she gets home. The older man who pushes himself to his limits in the water and then on a bike, and whose heart isn’t quite up to it, is Louis (Louis Trebor, that is, Michel Subor, a Nouvelle Vague veteran who played an important role in Beau travail), and it’s plain he’s the main character this time. Sidney is his estranged son. In the woods training dogs is the gap-toothed Béatrice Dalle. Louis knows her. And he has sex with a lady pharmacist (Bambou). He doesn’t seem to care about any of these people very much, but they are present because of their relationship to him.

    Louis has plenty of money, including a lot of cash in a Swiss safe deposit box (the action is set in the French Alps near Switzerland). He also has a powerful sex drive for a man his age, a hard-edged ambition and a ruthless outlook on life. He will kill without a moment’s hesitation. The sources of his cash don’t look too clean. He wants a new heart, and he is prepared to break the law to get it. He also wants to reclaim a long-lost Tahitian son. But none of this is completely clear. L’Intrus, which is loosely based on a book with the same name by a man (Jean-Luc Nancy) who got a heart replacement when not at all young, is more discursive, meandering, and poetic than explicit. You watch it as you study a puzzle, or as if you’re pricking up your ears to decipher a conversation that’s intense and sounds fascinating, though you can’t grasp the whole context. The mystery of this movie gives it an edge of reality a well-worked out, conventional storyline tends to lack. But it’s not “realistic.” All of this could be Louis’ dream, or parts of it. And he could be dead, or dying, or not.

    There’s no “solution” to The Intruder. In the book, the “intruder” is the alien transplanted heart, which the body of the older man rejects. But the man himself, wandering on his own and tied to nobody, then seeking to find a son in the Pacific islands, is an intruder too, in the lives of others and maybe even in his own.

    This film has a certain similarity to Arnaud des Pallières’ 2003 Adieu, which also is a meditation on death and is similarly challenging, indeed off-putting, in the way it shifts scenes without easily discernible links, but Denis doesn’t raise the social and political issues des Pallières does, and the failure to question Louis’ values is troubling. It’s not so easy to see a consistent style in Denis’ films; they have a diaristic, personal quality and she certainly does what she wants. Growing up in French Africa (Cameroun) – hence her most famous film Chocolat, she has sympathy for outsiders in France and people on the edge. Beau travail, an abstract reworking of Billy Budd using the foreign legion in Djibouti, was beautiful if irritatingly arty. Vendredi soir/Friday Night was perfectly clear and linear, but irritating, a drawn-out woman’s fantasy about a one-nighter. L’intrus is certainly an improvement over the latter. And it is welcome to see a film that requires all our attention and then some. I’m not sure it has to be as opaque as it is, but I’m not sure it doesn’t, either. As a reviewer for the Guardian put it, “I’m still scratching my head over this one, but the itch is mostly pleasant.”

    [Opened in New York December 23, 2005.]
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-21-2006 at 01:57 AM.

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    Finally had a chance to watch this puzzler. The effect of the film itself on my psyche can only be described as intrusive, to the point that I've been unable to watch anything else that requires my full attention. These images have lodged themselves front and center, overstaying their visit. It's due to a combination of their sensorial-almost-physical quality and my inability to fully digest their meaning and inter-connections.

    L'Intrus is both elliptical and metaphorical. Louis reminded me of the Professor in Bergman's Wild Strawberries re-examining his life, but Louis is a darker character whose past seems to include murder. Bergman's film also goes inside the protagonist's interior (subconscious) but, unlike L'Intrus, the viewer is cued via cinematography as to when the film goes inside. Denis rejected DP Agnes Godard's suggestion to do precisely that, and refuses to provide clues during interviews (that heart on a snowy field belongs inside but other images are of more mystrious provenance) . All she says is that there's a Northern Hemisphere/pre-surgery half and a Southern Hemisphere/post-surgery one, and that her approach this time is not unlike that of Faulkner's Absolom Absalom and Joyce's Ulysses. She calls her film an "adoption" of Nancy's book rather than an adaptation.

    The theme of intrusion and several metaphors of intrusion (illegal immigrants crossing the border under cover of night, for example) are central. But the theme of loneliness and alienation of the self-imposed kind struck a chord with me.

    And what about the character played by Katia Gobuleva. I'm not sure she fits the label "black marketeer" but she is instrumental in Louis getting the heart, then she "appears" in the second part of the film as a sentinel/embodiment of conscience type of character who may be visible only to Louis.

    And what about clips from an unfinished film by Paul Gegauff apparently called "Le Reflux" used by Denis to suggest Louis' previous travel to Tahiti.

    Denis in a most experimental mode gives one a lot to chew on.

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    Rosenbaum's capsule isn't very enlightening on this. I recommend Dennis Lim's
    review in the Voice , after which it's no longer a "puzzler." And frankly I felt like writing my own review was irrelevant. It was a bit hard to watch in the sense that i hardly knew what was goiing on, but I enjoyed the intense physiucality. The lead actor despite his age projects intense physicality, and Gregoire Colin is a very physical actor, but it's the camera and the dwelling on elements and elemental experiences that makes the movie so immediate and real, so physical, tactile.. And by that token, not to see it on a big sceeen is a shame. I saw it in a small theater, but at least the audience was a gathering of devoted searchers.

    The guy is much worse than you give him credit for. He killed somebody quite recently, didn't you notice? And he gets an illegal organ transplant. He hs become wealthy through illegal and immoral practices. He's like a major criminal. But the paradox is that though he's nearly dead, he's so full of life. And though he's realy bad, he's what you might call a "liver," a guy who knows how to live.

    I now Denis says her use of the book is impresionistic, but from reading about the movie I find that the booki is the key to the movie nonetheless.

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    I have a basic routine: after watching a film and having formulated the basis of an opinion, I read whatever's been written about it in the Chicago Reader and the Village Voice. These are by far the best US periodicals covering cinema, something you're obviously aware of, exemplified by your providing a link to Lim's excellent review.

    More so than any film that comes to mind, including Bergman's Persona and Resnais' Last Year at Marienbad, L'Intrus is open to interpretation, because a great deal of it reflects the interior life of the protagonist. Actually, Lim states "there's a fair chance at least half of the movie takes place inside the protagonist's head". You say "the guy is much worse than you give him credit for. He killed somebody quite recently, didn't you notice?" with a certainty and conviction that speaks volumes about how strongly you feel about your interpretation of the material. Both of us seem to agree Ms. Denis' film is quite an accomplishment but we seem to have come up with different interpretations (it would be impossible for any two viewers to come up with identical readings of such a "free" movie) . A lot of what may seem to you as a fair representation of reality, I took it as fantasy projection, or dream, etc._ as something happening "inside then protagonist's head". I propose for instance that the character played by Gobuleva never went to Korea, even though she appears to Louis while he is visiting there.

    Another key to my interpretation concerns Lim's assertion that the film is to some extent "the final accounting of a guilty conscience". Louis feels guilty, in my view, not only of neglecting one son and ignoring another, but also of appropiating someone else's heart to extend his life. He may feel responsible for the man's death and the "murder" is pure projection of his existential guilt. Again, only my interpretation and you may dismiss it but, wouldn't it be more congruent with the gist of Nancy's book (which you correctly identify as "the key" to the movie)? One critic, can't quite remember off hand, went as far as saying that the only characters who function independent of Louis' psyche are his son and his son's wife. I wouldn't go that far by it seems to me that Denis has purposefully made a film as wide open to conjecture and personal interpretation as any in the history of the medium. This extreme ambiguity can be fascinating or frustrating, or both, depending on one's predilections.

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    Lim's quietly brilliant review, analysis, interpretation, and appreciation of L'Intrus isn't some kind of skeleton key that makes everything clear but it showed me what is clear in the movie and I admit that I freely cribbed from his review in writing mine--don't know if I could have written what I did without him. I might mention that there are a lot of specific things that we do know in the movie, though we have to piece them together because the narrative is fragmented and largely without dialogue. I tried to spell out (a selection of) these details that are clear and material in my review's second and third paragraphs but I also say, "There’s no “solution” to The Intruder". You may prefer to dwell on conjectural aspects particularly about Louis Trebor, Michel Subor's character, who is central and about whom certain things are vague. "There's a fair chance" doesn't have to mean it's all inside his head, just that it could be; this makes the movie more intensely about Trebor--we're both inside him and outside him. Whether he is guilty or alive or dead are conjectures. We can however assume that he was a ruthless man -- we see that -- who did bad things, made a lot of money, got a heart transplant, has a son and looks for another one. If he's dead then whether he feels guilty is a meaningless question. If he's alive and human no doubt he has unfinished business.

    My feeling is that Denis made the movie this way not so much so we could play around with theories or interpretations but more so that we would be left open to the raw sensory experiences she is giving us and NOT interpret them too much, just let them be, in their mystery. That's the beauty of the movie. That's why I titled my review "Raw material." One should not rush in to intepret. As Lim says, Denis is "more intuitive than analytical." Note Lim says ,"For what is essentially an adaptation of a metaphor, The Intruder is almost shockingly concrete," and note the paragraph that begins with that sentence. In embracing the concrete, we embrace mystery, because matter is ultimately beyond interpretation. L'Intrus is a visual and sound poem and as such asks us to exercise what Keats called "negative capability," the capacity to let go and enter into other beings and experiences alien to us -- to be "intruders", if you will into a world we barely understand. This is the understanding of the senses, not the reason.

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    I'll phrase it this way: firstly, one can't help but expeirence the inherent sensorial impact of the images, their physicality so to speak. Then, but almost simultaneously, it's quite pleasurable and edifying to me to look for connections/correspondences/paradoxes; to arrive at some partial interpretation and seach for meaning that makes subjective sense. This process seems natural to me, and probably not contrary to your stated views.

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