(Dir. Claire Denis, France, 2004)
For a film as deliberately obscure as Claire Denis’ The Intruder, its provocative title proves all the more significant. Sometimes a film’s title is strictly descriptive, and other times it can provide clues with regards to a more challenging narrative, and then, in rare cases such as this, the title is yet another piece of the puzzle demanding that we engage the film with a heightened awareness. Denis’ work leads us to wonder throughout who exactly is the intruder and upon whom is he or she intruding? While Denis brilliantly provides no easy answers, her second masterpiece follows in its predecessor’s (Beau travail) footsteps; its narrative is decidedly sparse in favor of philosophically weighty themes and visual storytelling. And, while Beau travail was relatively straightforward only hinting at the abstraction Denis is capable of, The Intruder also marks another leap forward in the director’s craft in its refusal to bow to traditional narrative form.
Given its largely ambiguous and sometimes even difficult to follow premise, some viewers have found Denis’ film frustrating and pretentious, lacking the depth of her earlier works. True, it requires multiple viewings to fully appreciate what it has to offer, but this demand on her audience in no way diminishes what Denis has accomplished. Other great directors have liberally toyed with narrative form before – notably Kiarostami who regularly blends documentary and fiction, and Lynch and Weerasethakul who leave it up to their viewers to determine what actually happens and what’s imagined or dreamt – and yet there’s still nothing quite like The Intruder in all of cinema. There is a wondrous blur between the literal and figurative as Denis seamlessly weaves between the two, typically free of context. The result is a collage of images and moments that perhaps provide a window into the film’s central figure’s subconscious rather than deliver a strict account of his life.
We don’t learn much about the aging and reclusive Louis Trebor (Michel Subor) over the course of the film as he’s rarely granted much dialogue or even explicit emotional reactions, and yet the tapestry of images Denis creates provides a considerable amount of insight into what kind of man Trebor is. We know he prefers solitude to most human interaction, we know he has a son Sidney (Grégoire Colin) who he carelessly neglects, and we know he is in need of a heart transplant. The rest of what we see or that Denis hints at is speculative at best. Is he really a former mercenary? Does he really kill a man in his home after making love to his part-time lover? Does he really have an illegitimate son that he’s never met most likely residing in Tahiti? None of these questions are ever fully answered, but they form the basis for what little actual plot runs through Denis’ film.
Trebor does indeed embark on a journey to obtain a new heart on the black market in order to find and spend some time with his supposed long-lost son. The quest takes him from the French countryside to Geneva to South Korea to Tahiti where he never finds his real son but also learns that his body will likely reject his new heart. All the while Denis splices in shots of the home he left behind, mysterious and unnamed individuals breaking into homes, Trebor’s son Sidney and his family, and a young Russian woman (Yekaterina Golubeva) who initially accepts Trebor’s cash for the organ then reappears to taunt him at each stage of his journey – potentially symbolizing the inevitable rejection of the implant.
The recurring theme of intrusion is established in the film’s opening scene and remains constant throughout – drug-sniffing dogs that leap into vehicles at border patrol stations, an unexplained team of assailants seemingly bent on breaching Trebor’s wooded fortress, Sidney’s own break-in at his absent father’s home, and perhaps most mysteriously a young woman who enters a secluded shed to escape the cold and take a hot bath. And yet, the most obvious intruder is none other than Trebor’s new heart – a foreign organ that is both essential to life, yet relies entirely upon the rest of the man’s aging body to accept it. That Trebor remains the same man he was prior to his surgery, and his body’s rejection of the heart further implying that nothing has changed, proves to be a rather simple metaphor for a human heart devoid of emotion that Denis strives for, but the film’s bold execution elevates The Intruder from seemingly slight allegory. No, Denis is much too mature and nuanced a filmmaker for that.
In the end, it seems, Trebor himself may be the film’s most glaring intruder. Not only are his advances toward acquaintance and fellow dog-lover Antoinette (Florence Loiret-Caille) unwanted (not to mention his presumptuous request that she take in his pair of canines when he leaves for Korea), he shows up in a remote village in Tahiti unannounced demanding to see his son. It’s cultural and personal intrusion at its worst, and when Trebor eventually realizes the error of his ways, it’s already too late. The late-film shocker that it was his own son Sidney who was hunted down and unwillingly used for his illegal heart transplant might again be more figurative than literal, but it’s message is clear. It takes one heartless man to abandon his own dogs and an estranged son who lives nearby in order to connect with one he’s never met in some far-flung part of the world.
Of course, there’s much, much more one could glean from Denis’ work as it’s rife with beautifully symbolic imagery. She’s a remarkably skilled filmmaker whose aesthetic is surprisingly quite singular in cinema. Her fixation on the human body captured by invasive close-ups lends an intimate, sensuous quality to her work mostly unseen in the rest of art-house film. It’s also all the more fitting – like in The Intruder – when this wholly engrossing style serves the recurring themes of her work. Denis is constantly concerned with the physicality of her human characters and how it affects what transpires under the skin and within the heart. The Intruder, then, easily her finest film of this new century, is yet another essential chapter in her growing oeuvre that provides a clear window into the worldview of this great artist.