When you go to see a Claire Denis film, you don't go expecting to be spoon-fed a lot of information, and The Intruder is no exception. This hauntingly visual, dream-like film blends together a narrative storyline with dream sequences, abstractions, and maybe-prophetic moments. Denis, who said in an interview with Senses of Cinema that she "doesn't make highly intellectual films" and that The Intruder is like "a boat lost in the ocean drifting," makes you work to piece together a narrative out of seemingly obscure and unrelated bits and pieces. While you're never quite sure if you've got it all figured out, you leave feeling it was a swell ride anyhow. Seldom have I seen a film that inspired so much intense discussion in the bathroom and lobby after the screening; people were clustered in groups, going over snippets of film like clues to a murder mystery dinner party, long after the film ended.
In a world where many films hand the audience both questions and answers on a silver platter, with background information provided through condescending exposition, it takes some mental fine-tuning to watch 90 minutes of a film that is often deliberately misleading, obtuse and highly visual in nature. Whereas we are used to visuals providing mostly backdrops to action and dialogue, in The Intruder, the visuals are the action and dialogue, characters every bit as important as the people and events they embrace. Denis imbues her film lovingly with long, slow shots that, more than merely establishing settings, dictate mood and emotion, like paintings brought to life on the big screen.
What narrative there is (seeded from a 40-page memoir by Jean-Luc Nancy) centers around an older man, Louis Trebor (Michel Subor), who, by the end of the film, one can pretty much surmise is a retired spy, mercenary, or other some such shady character. Louis keeps guns, knows how to use a knife, and has lots of presumably illegal money tucked away in Switzerland. As we meet the reclusive and self-absorbed Louis, he is lying naked in the sunshine with his two gorgeous sled dogs. Louis lives in an isolated cabin in the French mountain. We soon learn Louis has a heart condition and is in need of a transplant; he is also searching for a Tahitian son he has never met.
Louis already has one son we have met -- sexy stay-at-home dad Sidney (Grégoire Colin), who cares for his baby and toddler with loving tenderness. An early scene, a sexy homecoming for Sidney's wife Antoinette, who works as a border guard, is a lesson in the power of understatement and subtlety in filmmaking. Sidney serves as a contrast to the distant Louis; he is every bit the involved father Louis clearly has never been. One of the best shots of the film is when Sidney and Antoinette are hiking in the woods with their children; Sidney is carrying the baby in a front-pack, and the baby, who had been sleeping, opens his eyes and looks up with the most perfect expression of love and trust. Denis lingers her camera lovingly on the baby's face, in a close-up shot that fills the screen, embodying the parent-child bond in a single moment of perfect filmmaking.
The appearance of intruders on Louis' remote homestead, and a mysterious character named only Young Russian Woman (Katia Golubeva), who seems to be tracking Louis, sets things in motion, sending Louis in search of an illegal heart transplant and his never-seen son by a former Tahitian lover, who apparently means more to him than the son and grandchildren before him. Hazy dream-like elements and abstract characters like the Queen of the Northern Hemisphere (Béatrice Dalle), give us glimpses into Louis' past and future, while Golubeva serves as an angry conscience or, as Denis has said, an "angel of doom", unrelentingly stalking Louis and telling him he has no heart. Denis cleverly weaves in footage from an old film starring a much younger Subor, Le Reflux, by Paul Gégauff, to give us glimpses at Louis' past adventures in the South Pacific. Throughout the film, Louis is journeying to get back to his home on a remote Tahitian island to find his lost son. There is an element of paternal regret there, but it is a selfish regret; Denis does not paint Louis as a likeable character, even as she intimately examines slivers of his imagined life.
The film's visuals are mesmerizing and breathtaking, from lengthy, Gaugin-inspired shots of the ocean, both peaceful and stormy grey; to the vivid rainbow of banners of ribbon flying against a saturated blue sky at the launching of a ship; to the quiet blue desperation of a hospital room. The theme of intrusion is woven throughout the film, from the intruders on Louis' property, to his own intrusion back into the Tahitian village he left behind years before; to his intrusion on the life of an adult son who may or may not exist. Even Louis' shady heart transplant is a form of intrusion, as the heart of this man portrayed as cold and heartless is replaced by the heart of a newly-dead person.
Denis thankfully doesn't cater to the Hollywood-typical bad-guy-facing-death-finds-redemption ending, wherein previously bad people are suddenly made to see the evils of their ways and reform. Louis goes on his journey, leaving one remote home in the French mountains, obtaining an ill-gotten heart and buying a Korean boat for his son, then heading to another remote home on a Tahitian island, hidden away in the palm trees, but the film is more about the journey than about any satisfying resolution. Denis takes us along on with Louis, through landscapes and events both real and imagined, intriguing us with the crumbs of his life, and leaving us with more questions than answers. The Intruder is a slow, thoughtful film; you sit through the first screening of it with a rather puzzled expression as you try to sort it all out, then later, as you sift through it in your mind, like a panhandler searching for gold, nuggets of insight and glimmers of the film's genius are revealed. The Intruder is French filmmaking by a treasure of a filmmaker at the top of her cinematic -- and enigmatic -- game.
Note: Ryan Stewart reviewed The Intruder back in December and had a very different take on the film. Check out his review for a different perspective.