Monday, January 18, 2010

The Intruder (L'Intrus) A Film by Claire Denis (2004)

Claire Denis' The Intruder is loaded with Marxist Dialectics, the kind of suggestive cutting collisions that were pioneered by Sergei Eisenstein. A man describes a scene in the woods to his wife as a way of setting an erotic tone between the two of them, followed by a cut to the man's father sitting amidst tall pine trees relaxing with his dogs. A priest speaks about the variety of immoral beings in the world, followed by a cut to the film's blank protagonist, Louis Trebor (Michel Subor). The intentions of these techniques are of course not always cut and dry, for the range of potential associative meanings that could arise out of them is infinite. However, it's important to at least attempt on some level - even if it's subconscious - to interpret and assign meaning to these faint jabs, because they're likely to be all Denis will give you.

The story, as it is, is left deliberately shrouded in mist, replete with seemingly significant gaps in between the action Denis does show. In order to gather any semblance of narrative momentum, one has to look towards the way that the film is essentially divided into three parts, each comprised of a different locale, though not entirely limited to it, and connected by the theme of travel and intended self-renewal. For Trebor, his renewal is both physical and emotional; with a failing heart, he must make a trip to acquire the new organ on the black market (for reasons unknown) and in doing so feels the desire to make a pilgrimage to the remote island of his youth, Tahiti, where he abandoned a son generations earlier (also for reasons unknown). Therefore, the three distinct settings of the film are his lonely woodland cabin on the French-Swiss border, Pusan, and Tahiti. In the lead role, screen veteran Michel Subor plays a man of few words yet capable of making an indelible physical impact. Although he searches for his son, an action that normally would imply grief and sadness, Trebor is really a brooding object more than an emotional human being, his pursuits marked by little perceivable motivation. Instead, we are supposed to dream up some scrape of a backstory when Trebor's married son (Grégoire Colin), whom he neglects, says to his wife after a brief, unexpected encounter with his father: "What a lunatic."

Though The Intruder's primary mode of expression appears rooted in realism, the film subliminally shifts between reality and imagined moments, supposedly in the mind of Trebor. Inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy's book of the same name, Denis permeates the film with a complex sense of impending death, coupled by the frightening situation of heart transplant and the idea that one's own body is foreign to one's self. Given this framework, it is evident that Trebor is aware that he is facing the end of his life and the fact of his own body being invaded by an organ from another, so the film appears to take place in an eerie twilight zone between life and death. Sinister visions bubble up out of obscurity, like Trebor cutting the throat of an unknown teenage boy in the night and wrapping up his body fastidiously, or the image of a bare heart in the middle of a snowy field, being sniffed out by his two watchful huskies. Because of the lack of stylistic dissonance between these scenes and the more explicitly "real" scenes, there is a deep uncertainty as to whether or not they actually occur in the timeline of the story. Similarly, there is inconclusiveness in the depictions of Trebor's human relationships in the film: Bambou, who plays an unidentified pharmacist in the story, sleeps with Trebor but appears to not live with him; a woman labeled in the script only as Queen of the Northern Hemisphere (Béatrice Dalle) is a sassy dog breeder who he desires sexually but receives no requital; and a Russian vender (Katia Golubeva) from whom Trebor purchases his heart transplant violently stalks him afterward.

Each third of the film consciously involves a different style to coincide with the fatalistic progression of the story. The first section, taking place on the French-Swiss border, is arguably its most interesting. Denis' cutting rhythms here are about as radically unconventional as they get. Switching startlingly from close-ups to long shots, subjective point-of-views to objective point-of-views, static shots to suffocating handicams, and from one character to another without introduction, she creates a montage of abstractions that is more a flow of sensuous images than it is a progression of linearity. One of Denis' strong points will always be her knack for shooting entangled bodies, caressing the details of the conjoined figures with effortless eroticism, such as when Trebor's son gets in his wife's pants while their young children whine in the neighboring room. After this section the film's tempo steadily decreases, containing less and less spontaneous interjections. By the finale in Tahiti, The Intruder feels like a completely different work than what its opening anticipated. The shots lengthen, the soundtrack becomes quieter, comedic scenes appear, and Denis begins interspersing the action with footage from an unfinished 60's film called Le Reflux, also set in Tahiti and starring Michel Subor.

All of this curiously approximates the pace of the gradually failing heart of a man apprehensive about the shaky relationship between him and his sons, as well as the locations that he travels through dispassionately, and his internal body and external body. The film's title is fittingly multi-faceted in this light. The heart is an intruder of the human body. Trebor is an intruder himself, infiltrating both his past, his son's life, and the places that are not home to him. There is also a veiled theme woven into Trebor's past of some sort of political fugitivity, as we see him several times throughout the film involved in clandestine transfers of money in Swiss banks. Such scenes though - which could have gained dramatic significance in a more traditional political thriller - are downplayed like the rest of the events that comprise the story, a homogeneity that Denis aims for to encourage viewer participation. While it's difficult to come away with anything concrete after watching The Intruder, with Denis' and collaborator Agnes Godard's ravishing imagery and Stuart Staples' disquieting minimalist score, you're likely to experience a unique and tangible atmosphere within which a puzzling tale of coming death and ephemeral globetrotting exists.


Ed Howard said...

Great piece. This is a very rich film, one whose elusive meanings especially begin to open up a bit once one reads Jean-Luc Nancy's essay, which as you note inspired the film. The essay is about Nancy's own experience of receiving a heart transplant, and the thoughts about foreignness, identity, the body, science and memory that are conjured up by this unusual experience. It's a fantastic piece of philosophical exploration, and its themes resonate throughout Denis' film, in which she doesn't so much develop a plot as riff on the various ideas about "intrusion" (immigration, tourism, relationships to others, self-identity) that Nancy discusses.

Carson Lund said...

Thanks for the comment Ed, I'll have to read Nancy's essay because I was very interested after seeing the film.