At the Toronto International Film Festival in September I talked with filmmaker Claire Denis about her latest film, the enigmatic L'Intrus. This article appears in a rather different form in the December/January issue of Paste Magazine.
"My films, sadly enough, are sometimes unbalanced," says filmmaker Claire Denis as we sip tea at the Toronto International Film Festival. "They have a limp or one arm shorter or a big nose, but even in the editing room when we try to change that, normally it doesn't work." I'm taken aback, but if I were to do a spit-take right here and now, in front of one of my favorite directors, well I'd turn red as a beet and might never recover. Denis' films are as graceful as they come, bold and musical, somehow warm and intelligent at the same time, and they're so subtle that they often seem to work on a subconscious level. Revisiting one of her movies invariably turns up something new, something placed carefully in the flow of the story by a sure and steady hand, something I can't believe I didn't see the first time. A limp? A big nose? To me they're more like Fred Astaire.
"And I'm not proud of that," she continues. "I would like to be more neutral, so editing would be more like a feast — let's try this, let's try that — but it never works, and it's painful sometimes." She's not being coy. She was just as self-deprecating after a screening of her new film, The Intruder (L'Intrus), the day before we spoke. She took the microphone and stood before a quietly perplexed audience that seemed eager for her to shed some light on the film's mysteries. She offered a few thoughts — "for me it's this idea of intrusion, that there are things in your life that you want and reject... that is very strange, to want something and at the same time you are tired of it" — but when one viewer, unsatisfied with her comments, said he'd stick to his own interpretation, she replied, "It's probably better, anyway. Maybe my interpretation, now that the film is finished, is no longer necessary." What may sound like indifference is anything but; over tea she tells me, "You know, when I am shooting, every moment is strong, every moment is important. I am interested in these moments... but I get a cold wind blowing on my neck and I think — oof — this is going to be hard for Q&A."
The Universe is an Ellipse
Despite Denis' apprehension about editing, watching her movies is something like a feast, and not least because of how her films are edited. Her hallmark is an elliptical storytelling style that requires an active audience. Her movies aren't puzzles, necessarily, but they're full of gaps and undercurrents, and she trusts the audience to assemble the pieces.
In his praise of her first film, 1989's Chocolat
, a semi-autobiographical story about a white French family living in colonial Africa, film critic Roger Ebert wrote
, "it is made with the complexity and subtlety of a great short story, and it assumes an audience that can understand what a strong flow of sex can exist between two people who barely even touch each other." It's a statement that might surprise some people who've seen the movie, since the film shows no sex and none is talked about. But he's right. The words that aren't said in Chocolat
could fill volumes. The movie compares the racial divide in that part of the world to the horizon, a steady line that separates the sky from the earth. You walk toward it, and it moves back. Of all the characters in the movie, the family's African servant Protée has the deepest understanding of the social rules that everyone is living under, but the movie conveys his enormously complex outlook with very little dialog. He's a nearly silent presence in a house full of chatter. As a result, Chocolat
is a movie for adults, in the very best sense.
Many of the scenes in Nénette et Boni take us into Boni's fantasies. The payoff comes in the movie's final moments. It's a sudden shock, but whose fantasy is it? Denis wouldn't be so careless as to include a random fantastical act, detached of anyone's brain. This scene is the sort of thing that Boni would dream up, but the glimpses of Nénette sleeping lead me to believe that we're seeing her image of a Boni-style fantasy, one with a boldness that she can't muster on her own, the merged thoughts of siblings. My God, the things Denis can do with film.
Maybe this maturity is to be expected from someone who made her first film at the age of 40, and then only after she'd worked as an assistant director for legendary filmmakers Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders, and Jim Jarmusch. Denis (pronounced duh-NEE
) is the co-writer of all of her films, not just the director of other people's stories, and she draws inspiration from a wide variety of human expression — music and novels, Neil Young and William Faulkner — and from her own experience growing up in Africa and France. But she somehow combines it all into films that are both incredibly cohesive and truly cinematic. Where a novelist might write what a character is thinking, Denis will suggest something similar in a fleeting shot with a subtly-realized but highly accurate point of view.
The Heart-Stopping Intrusion
The Intruder is Denis' tenth feature, and once again she draws on an eclectic range of sources. The original inspiration came from Robert Louis Stevenson's writings about the islands of the South Pacific and the paintings of the post-impressionist artist Paul Gauguin who lived the last years of his life in Tahiti. The movie also recalls F.W. Murnau's last film, Tabu, which takes place on and around Bora Bora.
Denis' film may build on those sunny works, but it begins in the opposite hemisphere, along the snowy, mountainous border between France and Switzerland. It's a landscape that's rife with symbolism, where the people seem determined to keep each other at arm's length. Guards patrol the border, forests surround lone cabins, and people travel with dogs in front of them for protection. And at the center of it all is Louis, a man who lives alone and has little interest in his son and grandchild in Geneva.
Trouble Every Day includes scenes of a maid alone in the locker room of the hotel where she works. The camera watches an intimate moment of changing clothes from behind a stack of towels. You don't need to see Vincent Gallo to know that he's lurking, you only need to know that Denis' camera does not lurk without good reason. To help you along, at the end of the scene, the camera pivots to show a door swing shut at the end of the hallway.
The central idea and the name of the movie come from a book by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. For decades, Nancy has written about communities and how individuals relate to them. We're never truly separate from those around us, he has observed, even though we may sometimes assign the status of outsider or intruder to some individuals. When Nancy had a heart transplant ten years ago, like a true philosopher he saw it as a metaphor; the same theme that he'd been exploring for years now had a physical, and very close, manifestation. The operation saved his life, but his body began to reject the new heart. It was a foreigner beating in his chest, a life-giving curse. And, of course, for him to receive a heart, someone else had to die. Nancy wrote about the experience and his ambivalence in a 40-page booklet called L'Intrus
Denis herself has explored similar themes in her films: the colonists in Chocolat, a new soldier who is rejected by a seasoned drill sergeant in Beau Travail, and a woman who allows a stranger to climb into her car, and bed, in Friday Night — intruders and foreigners walking the thin line between acceptance and rejection. I ask Denis if any of her films before The Intruder were inspired by Nancy.
"No, I was not aware of anything. In a way I was even afraid to be too inspired by his text," Denis says. "He contacted me when he saw Beau Travail, because he wrote an article about it. Of course, I had read L'Intrus at that time, and I did a small documentary with him." But it was more recently that Denis made the conscious decision to incorporate Nancy's heart transplant into her latest project. "One day I told him L'Intrus was going to intrude my script."
"But there is a coincidence," she adds. "I was preparing the film and he wrote a small book called Noli Me Tangere about the resurrection of Christ, the idea of resurrection.... I read it while I was shooting and I thought, 'How strange,' because, me, I was inspired by this intrusion of the new heart, this very precise and physical book he wrote about rejection. And now he writes this thing about resurrection, which is another aspect of the film, without me knowing, you know? I had not read the book, and I thought— It's as if we had been traveling in the same train or boat without knowing."
The Snail and the Case of the Missing Film
Someone else who may have been on that train was actor Michel Subor who plays Louis. As a 68-year-old man with a weathered face and perpetual squint, he seems to carry his history in his body. "He's like a snail," she says, her voice low and gravelly. She motions to her back, and I think of a shell. Denis had Subor in mind as she was writing The Intruder, an important part of the process for a filmmaker who so often favors images over dialogue and relies on each actor's unusual physical presence to carry meaning. She harnesses the unique traits of each actor for her visual poems. In the film, Louis leaves France and embarks on a journey that takes him first to South Korea and eventually to Tahiti, which is as warm and sunny as the French mountains are frozen. Early in his travels, he buys a new heart, an operation that Denis elides, save for the appearance of a thick scar running up Louis' torso, as if he's both the Frankensteinian scientist who lives in seclusion and the scientist's pieced-together creation. With a new lease on life, he begins a search for a son that he apparently abandoned earlier in life. Maybe finding him will be as easy as replacing his heart.
When he reaches the South Pacific, the movie takes a brief, hallucinatory detour, a sudden leap in time, where we see Subor as a young man sailing these same waters. It looks like a clip from an old movie, and yet the only part that's familiar is the face, the eyes, some 40 years younger.
"I didn't want to speak too much about the script to Michel [before it] was finished and we had raised the money. I didn't want him to think about it before, but one day I was mentioning Tahiti and he had this kind of blasé look. He said, 'Oh, I've been to Tahiti.'"
It's curious that the South Pacific islands were the end of the line for so many of the works, characters, and artists in this web that is L'Intrus. Murnau died in a car accident just after completing Tabu. It lends an aura of doom to Louis' pre-occupations with finding a long lost son and buying his way out of heart problems.
Denis furrows her brow when she quotes Subor.
"I said, 'Oh really, you have?' He said, 'Yes I have been three months on a boat in Tahiti, starving.' I said 'How come?' He said, 'I did a film in 1962 made by Paul Gégauff. And the film was never ended, never released, but I spent three months there.' He had a very fresh memory of that film. And I told him 'Maybe there is a negative of it.' He said, 'Oh, I don't know, the producer is dead.'"
Paul Gégauff was also dead by then. He was a successful screenwriter who worked with Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, but he abandoned his only attempt to direct. "So I had been tracking the film with my assistant for months," Denis says and then adds, her face lighting up, "and we found a print."
The clips of the unfinished film appear in The Intruder at the perfect moment when Louis is looking for a past that he aborted and probably can't resume, a past that may not even exist, like an unfinished, unreleased film in a can at the back of a dusty vault. In a way, Denis' serendipitous discovery of the footage makes up for an accident that was very nearly disastrous: she and her crew shot for a week in South Korea, including a sequence where Louis buys a boat, but when the film crew returned to France, their footage was inadvertently X-rayed as it went through customs. The footage was ruined. "Everything was gray except for the boat inauguration which traveled in a separate suitcase." Denis and her crew were forced to return to Korea to reshoot a key scene. Film: it may last 40 years, or it may not survive the flight home.
L'Intrus is one of the few films I can remember seeing that actually grew richer as I explored its influences. Learning about the Gégauff film, watching Murnau's Tabu, knowing that it finds patterns with Nancy, Stevenson, and Gauguin, enhance the movie. This may also make the movie quite difficult to cozy up to if you don't feel like exploring the lines it touches.
Denis seems to meld Subor's history with the character's, mining his past, which is something she did previously in her film Beau Travail
where Subor resurrected the character he played in Jean-Luc Godard's early film Le Petit Soldat
. "Yeah, because Michel in a way, for me is not like an old actor with the past of an actor. He's a man who was a young actor and then had a life that was not secret, but nobody was aware of it. Now Michel is— I wouldn't say unaware of acting, but he's himself, you know? So then you can use his image as a young man without mentioning the actor but the man. Or a young face and the same face 40 years later."
The Independent Woman Raising Dogs
Another actor who has worked with Denis before is Béatrice Dalle who appears in The Intruder as a seemingly minor character, a woman who lives near Louis' cabin in the North but who refuses to look after his dogs while he's away, even though she has plenty of her own. Louis recalls the woman at an unusual time late in the movie, completing a loop back to the frozen North after his trip around the world.
"For me..." Denis says after a pause, as if she, too, is intrigued by Dalle's character, "it's because of the loop. I decided to have the last loop going back to the North. But in fact she was just a woman raising dogs, attractive but self-sufficient. She was the only character that does not need him. He was attracted to her behind her barrier... But her vision of him is kind of realistic. 'Go away. Who needs you.' Because of course a lot of characters help him, like his nurse in the hospital. They accept him. I needed this rejection.... He rejects his son, but I wanted him also to be rejected." Maybe it's fitting for Louis, having traveled around the world in search of an uncomplicated life, to reflect on the unattainable woman with the dogs, whose life goes on independently of his, on the other side of the earth. In the closing credits, Dalle's nameless character is whimsically identified as the "Queen of the Northern Hemisphere."
The Intruder works like a dream, like the hazy thoughts and fears of a man who'd rather cross the ocean than communicate with his very real son next door. When he arrives in the South, Louis wades across a shallow cove to carry boxes of supplies, even a mattress, to a small island where he'll set up the perfect place to make amends. At least that's his theory, but the island seems as isolated as the cabin he left in the mountains. Louis may believe in the idyllic life of Murnau's Tabu, but Denis seems far more skeptical, not only when she shows 40-year-old footage that we don't recognize but also when she simply shows the water, as if Louis' great folly is not recognizing its vastness. In a mesmerizing scene near the end of the movie, Denis shows a shot of the ocean that lasts for a very long time. It's calm and serene, but it conveys great distance. The scene — and much of the movie — is infused with a rhythmic guitar loop by Stuart Staples of the British band the Tindersticks, a haunting, recurring, unresolved riff, obstinate and cold, sad in its ceaseless drone. Like so many scenes in Denis' films, this one doesn't need words. I asked her how long that shot of the ocean is, and without hesitation she replied, "It's a minute and seventeen seconds, I think."
The Intruder is far more fragmented than most of Denis' films, and it's formal to the point of being clinical, although it's certainly, beautifully, provocative. But even if I don't fully understand it, I've learned that Denis' movies take time. They wait. Compared to the dense philosophical writings of Jean-Luc Nancy, the movie is a shattered mirror of loosely connected images. It's the frayed end of a rope, and we may never know what it was attached to. "The big difference for me between what he wrote and what I try to do in the film is maybe—" She pauses, as her films sometimes do, for a long time before adding, "My films are more formulated like questions, and being a philosophy teacher is more stating things."
And the big nose? The limp? "Maybe my films are a little like Michel Subor's character," Denis says with a smile. "Even with a good nurse, you cannot change them."
Frankly, I wouldn't want them any other way.