In an interview following the Toronto Film Festival screening of L’intrus (The Intruder, 2004), Claire Denis remarked that her films are sometimes unbalanced: “They have a limp, or one arm shorter than the other, or a big nose” (1). Whilst this comment may have been made in reference to editing challenges she commonly faces, considering the corporeal nature of The Intruder’s subject matter, as well as the processes that brought this highly intertextual project to realisation, it is apt that the director should use such a description to describe the body of the film itself. Like the earlier Trouble Every Day (2001), Denis’ later project features a protagonist involved in graphic acts of murder, drawing attention to the unstable, transgressive and animalistic qualities of the human body. One can observe a world in which blood ties are tenuous, bodies are fragmented or broken apart, and human contact can be fatal. More a visual poem than a balanced, coherent narrative, Denis’ eighth fictional feature film is an ambitious project charting one man’s quest for physical and spiritual healing.
Loosely based on the similarly named 40-page memoir by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, The Intruder presents the journey of aging protagonist Louis Trebor (Michel Subor), a solitary figure with a questionable military past, who seeks to control his ailing body, and specifically, his defective heart. The opening scenes portray customs searches at the French-Swiss border, a young couple’s intimate relations and illegal immigrants dodging border protection guards in near darkness as Denis sets up the central theme of the film: invasion of the mind and body, and of space. Louis’ quest for new life leads him to undergo a black market heart transplant, an act that physically opens his body to a foreign object; the replacement organ. This operation moves the film to the Southern Hemisphere as the recovering protagonist goes in search of an illegitimate son fathered in Tahiti decades earlier. Here, Denis takes inspiration from Robert Louis Stevenson’s writing and Paul Gauguin’s South Seas paintings to present an idyllic landscape in which Louis might recover his health; however, the operation is unsuccessful and he returns to hospital having failed on all counts. A mysterious young woman (Yekaterina Golubeva), who is perhaps a physical manifestation of his guilty conscience, reminds Louis that his new heart is still empty of emotion. The final scenes of the film reveal that his legitimate son, Sidney, had been killed in order to obtain the transplanted organ, an end reinforcing the film’s opening quote: “Your worst enemies are hiding inside, in the shadows, in your heart”.
The Intruder features several actors with whom Denis has repeatedly worked, creating a sense that performances are informed by previous collaborations, and that her films are interconnected. Indeed, one could look to Subor’s performance as Bruno Forestier in Denis’ Beau travail (1999), itself a reprisal of his role in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat (filmed in 1960 and released in 1963), to fill in the blanks associated with Louis’ imagined back-story. In line with her previous works, the director offers non-judgemental portrayals and little psychological depth to her characters. Rather, she focuses on the surface of their bodies, and literally speaking, does so with close-ups and extreme close ups of their skin. As Louis recovers from his operation in a darkened hotel room, tactile images of his gruesome scar remind us of the fine line between the inside and outside of the body. An Asian women massages his wounded chest, her lingering touch reinforcing the idea that, as with Nancy’s philosophy, “the body is the limit between sense and world” (2). As such, it bears the mark of trauma and cultural memory that is continually evolving and coming into being.
The director presents us with long takes of the planet’s dangerous natural elements such as the vast ocean, unpopulated forests and deadly snowfields. Martine Beugnet rightly observes that “the film speaks of enclosures and partitions, yet shows them to be porous, vulnerable to the intrusion of the gaze, the movement of bodies, the blow of a weapon, and the effect of time” (3). This sense of enclosure is reinforced by the composition of shots in which the protagonist’s body is framed through windows and doorways, fragmented and separated from both the outside world and his fellow man. Louis’ new heart is a foreign intrusion just as he is a foreigner in the countries he visits, with uncontrollable sickness perhaps being a physical manifestation of his inability to reconcile the past with the present.
The dreamlike structure of The Intruder, one that moves across multiple timeframes and plot ellipses, is organised around a shift in geography and the changing seasons. It is interesting to note that several of the key plot points of the film – the actual transplant operation; the death of Louis’ son Sidney – occur off-screen. The passing of time is somewhat unclear, signaled only by Louis’ healing transplant scar, rather than by editing transitions or other devices. As is common in Denis’ films, a repetition of both past and present builds meaning for the viewer. One can observe this in a sequence towards the end of the film when the protagonist, accompanied by an elderly male local, visits the coastline of the Marquesa Islands in French Polynesia. In medium shot, Louis stands upon a cliff, looking out to the vast sun-drenched ocean. A moody guitar and trumpet score transitions us to a distant boat where a younger man addresses an off-screen accomplice. This footage is from Paul Gégauff’s 1965 adventure film Le reflux, also starring Subor and set in Tahiti. Should we read this younger figure as Louis in the past or is it his long lost son? Is it perhaps a dream of events that could have been? Denis creates a sense that past and present are colliding here. An event seems to be replaying itself, hinted at by subtle differences in film exposure and on the soundtrack. But we are not privy to enough information and detail, and therefore cannot be sure. Through the fragmentation of past and present, Denis leaves the audience to assemble their own connections from the material offered.
L’intrus/The Intruder (2004 France 130 mins)
Prod Co: Ognon Pictures/ARTE France Cinéma Prod: Humbert Balsan Dir: Claire Denis Scr: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, based on the novella by Jean-Luc Nancy Phot: Agnès Godard Ed: Nellie Quettier Prod Des: Arnaud de Moleron Mus: Stuart Staples
Cast: Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Yekaterina Golubeva, Bambou, Florence Loiret-Caille, Béatrice Dalle
- Robert Davis, “Intruding Beauty: An Interview with Claire Denis”, Errata Magazine 9 December 2004: http://www.erratamag.com/archives/2004/12/intruding_beaut.html.
- Douglas Morrey, “Open Wounds: Body and Image in Jean-Luc Nancy and Claire Denis”, Film-Philosophy vol. 12, no. 1, 2008, p. 29.
- Martine Beugnet, Claire Denis, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 2004, pp. 42-43.