Via Chicago
— Errata Movie Podcast —
I spoke with French filmmaker Claire Denis in September 2004 and wrote an article about her latest film. Old news. In anticipation of seeing the film again tomorrow at the San Francisco International Film Festival, I'm posting a few tangents that I wasn't able to fit into the piece.
Claire Denis and Michel Subor
One of the movies I was most excited to see at last year's Toronto International Film Festival was the latest from Claire Denis, The Intruder (L'Intrus). Denis' movies always ask a little more of me than I expect them to, and The Intruder, as an extremely abstract, dreamlike meditation, is no exception. It scatters its story — or at least its images; story may not be the right word — across the globe showing us people who may not be people at all but just phantoms in the main character's mind. It very gradually develops a poem about the very human desire to craft a better personal story than the one that's in progress, a cleaner, simpler story where failing hearts are replaced with a snap, where complications are erased and redrawn, where sons who are distant, lost, are brought back into the fold and life continues at the point where the relationship was derailed. Easy.
I've been thinking about L'Intrus again recently because I'll have a second opportunity to see the film when it plays at the 48th San Francisco International Film Festival tomorrow at the Kabuki. (It plays again on May 1 at the PFA in Berkeley.)
But back in September in Toronto, as luck would have it, I sat down to talk with Denis the day after I saw the film, and I'm using the San Francisco festival as an excuse to post some long-promised outtakes from the interview. I'm a writer, not an interviewer, so my rare chats with filmmakers tend to be very unfocused and sprawling, full of tidbits that I can't figure out how to include in the final piece, or that I can only include after abbreviating them.
But I like those bits all the same. Maybe you'll enjoy them, too.
Rejection and Coincidence
Jean-Luc Nancy's reaction to the film.
Robert Davis: I know you've said the film is based on Jean-Luc Nancy's heart transplant, his writing about that. It seems unusual to base a movie on a philosophical work, but philosophers have often used fiction to convey their ideas, in stories and novels. Has he seen the film?
Claire Denis: Yeah. Jean-Luc Nancy told me he has to think about it. Because he was surprised. I don't know, when he saw it I think first of all he was suffering, deep in himself. When he saw the heart, the bloody heart on the snow, I could see his face. It was painful to him, and the scar was painful to him. So I think he needs to see the film once more so it becomes more abstract to him, because the first time he saw the film it was too physical, you know?
Because he does have a new heart, it's something he knows. Rejection. His own body suffering from that. He knows.
Also, I think he was surprised because there is a coincidence. I was preparing the film and he wrote a small book called Noli Me Tangere [full title: Noli Me Tangere: Essai sur la levée du corps] about the resurrection of Christ, the idea of resurrection. And when Madeline on Easter morning finds the door of the cave open, she sees a man and she thinks he's the gardener, and she asks him, "Is the Lord gone?" And the gardner turns and she recognizes the Christ and she wants to touch him and he says, "Don't touch me." "Noli me tangere."
And Jean-Luc studied that, not in religious terms but because it was inspiring so many paintings, you know, the resurrection of Christ.
And Madeline, her hands want to touch a body that can't be touched, because I think the translation of the word is not "don't touch me" but "you cannot touch me, I'm untouchable now" because resurrection is maybe something you cannot understand.
So he wrote that book, and 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?
R: Yeah, the son is even a little bit sacrificial, it seems.
C: Of course, yeah. 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, you know?
R: Yeah.
C: That was very weird.
R: That is weird. There are lots of crosses in the film, too. I remember that great shot of the cross with the crane behind it like a shadow.
C: Yeah, yeah.
He's Like a Snail
We were talking about actor Michel Subor and the footage from Paul Gégauff's aborted film Le Reflux that Denis uses in L'Intrus.
C: That film [Le Reflux], I must say, I could have used more cilps. I mean there was something, but Canal+ bought the negative and they sold it very expensively. Anyway—
In that case, also, Michel was not an actor in the film. He was already himself in a way. You could see how much of himself— I think he was a good actor, Michel, but he would not believe in a character unless it was himself, you know what I mean?
R: Hmm.
C: There was, um— I would say a Russian disbelief in Michel, a sort of—
R: He needed to find himself in the film somehow.
C: Yeah, or, why pretend this, you know? Let's try to [get me and] the character to meet. It's enough. A sort of laziness of being anyone else but himself. Although he's a good actor. He was the voice in Jules et Jim, and in Petit Soldat he was great. But he's dragging everything to his own enigmatic soul, for me.
R: Yeah. And it shows in his physical presence. In fact you've worked with a lot of actors who have very unique physical presences.
C: Yeah.
R: Beatrice Dalle is another. I wonder if I could ask you about her character in L'Intrus. There are a lot of things that are still mysteries to me about the movie and I'm waiting for them to sort of unfold as I see it again. Her character in particular is one of the most mysterious.
C: For me it was very... [pause] Maybe she should not have been at the end of the film, but 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, and she is the only character that does not need him and he is like attracted to her behind her barrier, as if he couldn't touch her because she would not even consider him, you know?
All the other characters are more or less— not depending on him but sort of attracted to him. She's the only one that has no— absolutely no— her vision of him is kind of realistic. She's the only person who just— "Go away." You know? "Who needs you."
That's all. I thought she was that person. I needed a character that was not attracted to him, someone who would reject, because the film is about intrusion and rejection and I needed someone to reject him.
R: That final scene, where she's on the dog sled, also reminds me of the scene where he's dragged by horses through the snow. I'm not sure why, necessarily, but it's—
C: Yeah, as if she was part of that rejection, yeah. Because of course a lot of characters accept him and almost help him. I mean like the nurse in the hospital they accept him. Of course he rejects his son, but I wanted him also to be rejected. He couldn't have everything he wanted even with money and smiling and self-confidence, whatever.
I wanted, but forgot, to ask Denis about the auditions for Louis's son, where we see one face after another, each a potential son. None of the candidates is quite right. Too tall, too short. It's a funny, absurd moment in the middle of a movie that I remember on the whole as very dour. It reminds me of something from Donald Barthelme, who readers of this site know is one of my faves. He created textual caricatures of fathers and sons in his novel The Dead Father and his short story Views of My Father Weeping, which I've alluded to a thousand times because they've so scratched my brain.
R: Well I like all of these faces in your movies. You cast interesting faces.
C: Yeah, kind of always the same. The same actors, always.
Guitar Loops and Dead Men
A musical loop, and a connection between Denis's films and Jim Jarmusch's.
R: I love the way you use water in this film. It seems to convey so much distance in time and space. There's that shot near the end, while the music is playing, you hold on the water for so long. Do you know how long that shot is? It's very long.
C: It's a minute and 17 seconds, I think.
R: [laughs] It's great. Who wrote that music? The guitar loop.
C: Stuart Staples, the leader of Tindersticks, the band, you know? But he decided not to work with the band this time. In a way the film was working like a loop so he recorded that guitar loop.
It was more interesting for me, as he said immediately, even before the film was finished shooting, that probably if we were stuck with a melody, it wouldn't be a good idea for the film.
I knew I wanted guitar right from the beginning. I told him I need a guitar sound, no violin, no... but then we thought maybe it's going to be like a ballad so let's make it a loop.
R: Hmm. I had the opportunity to speak with Jim Jarmusch earlier this year—
C: Oh yeah? I think he just started shooting last month.
R: Oh good. I'm excited to see his new movie. I'm always looking forward to his movies. He told me you were one of his favorite filmmakers. You worked with him—
C: Yeah, I was his assistant.
R: How did that happen?
C: I think really I was not needed. I think he enjoyed the fact that when he was about to shoot Down By Law, it was like a sort of poetic gesture to decide I was going to be the assistant. I was not even allowed by the union so they changed my name or whatever. But I mean I really worked. I was not just invited to watch shooting. I really enjoy working with him, yeah, very much so.
And it's still strong, because he is— I don't know— we don't see each other very often, as you might imagine. But it's important for me to know that he's working. His work is important for me.
Also probably people think there is absolutely no relation between his work and my work, but for me there is one: a sort of openness, a sort of— an open cinema. His films greet other filmmakers, you know what I mean?
R: I think so.
C: Other filmmakers, and life, and faces, and the way he chooses people and the way he films them. I feel so close. Yeah.
R: You know, the music in L'Intrus even reminds me a little of the music in Dead Man, the guitar loop that Neil Young wrote. And that movie is also kind of a circle, come to think of it. A circle of death.
C: Hmm. I always thought of Dead Man while I was shooting, when I was lost, when I was desperate with shooting. I thought this heart was also like the bullet in Dead Man, the bullet inside the body. It was suddenly coming back to me that Michel was also— it was not a bullet but this new heart was almost a bullet in his body killing him slowly.
R: That's very interesting.
C: Mm.
Distance and Rhythm
How does Denis create films with such strong rhythms?
R: Your films are so rhythmic and musical, you must work very closely with your editor and cinematographer and sound designer. Can I ask you a little bit about what your process is like and how all of this comes together into such a cohesive whole?
C: When I prepare shooting and I start preparing with Agnès Godard, the [director of photography], I try to explain to her through the script what I have seen. It's difficult to express, but when I'm working on the script I feel that I have already chosen the length. I don't know why. There is something there that is almost like a choice. It's not a technical choice, but it's a relation to the film that is already inside the script.
It's interesting that she describes the screenwriting process in terms that could describe L'Intrus: rejection and dreaming.
Because script writing takes a long time, with a period of rejection, a period of dreaming, so already there is a sense of length, you know? Which is— when I say length, I mean distance also.
So when I start working in preproduction with Agnès I try to express to her what I feel about that, you know?
And often I write when I already have locations. I don't look for locations after writing the script. Very often I look for locations then I write the script.
So, therefore, when I take Agnès to visit locations with the art director, there is already a feeling of distance and location and camera. I think it's already contained by the site and by the story.
So already it's a very closed approach, as if the camera and Agnès are already inside the script, you know? And sometimes it's difficult for them because I don't give them the opportunity to propose another distance. But even if I tried to say, OK, let's propose something different, I know it's too late, it's impossible, so they have to come to the script. You know what I mean.
R: Hmm.
C: And then I think it's easier, because from there it's like writing together. We agree on everything, because the most important thing is decided. Let's say for this film 125 for the length, so once you decide that and Agnès proposes Super-35, which is a sort of fake 'scope, what else can you do? The rhythm just happens, it's what you do when you're filming. It's almost as if the framing and distance were made already. What I have to feel with Agnès is a sort of internal rhythm of shots.
Another interesting similarity to Dead Man: the score and film have a rhythm like Denis describes. Jarmusch says that Neil Young improvised the Dead Man score in real time and that when they later tried to shift the music's location in the film, it didn't work as well.
So, when I reach the editing — it might be difficult, I don't mean it's easy to edit the film like that — but there is already sort of a physical rhythm inside it. And it never worked when we tried to edit differently. It's like grrr. [motions as if fitting square peg in round hole] It never worked.
R: Who designs your credit sequences? They're often so whimsical or unusual.
C: A young girl named Charlotte. She was thinking of the loop.
R: Ah yes, yeah.
C: You think they're good?
R: Yeah, I like them a lot.
[The opening titles appear on the screen in odd clusters and with a steady, almost syncopated rhythm. The closing titles have a strange paint, scroll, wipe, paint, scroll wipe pattern, and some of the characters are whimsically identifed with names like "Queen of the Northern Hemisphere."]
R: Have you had a chance to see anything else at the festival?
C: I wanted to see the film by Jia Zhangke, The World.
R: Ah, The World, yes, I've heard good things about that.
I also missed The World in Toronto, but I'll be seeing it at the SFIFF next week.
C: But I could not because I had a screening at the same time. But I saw Hou Hsiao-hsien's film.
R: Café Lumière? Did you like that?
C: Yeah.
R: Yeah, me too. He's great.
Posted by davis | Link
Reader Comments
April 29, 2005, 07:52 AM

Thanks so much for posting this, Rob. I love this:

"Let's say for this film 125 for the length, so once you decide that and Agn?s proposes Super-35, which is a sort of fake 'scope, what else can you do? The rhythm just happens, it's what you do when you're filming. It's almost as if the framing and distance were made already. What I have to feel with Agn?s is a sort of internal rhythm of shots."

I remembered you asking her about the length of the final water shot, so I noted it as I watched the screener. 57 seconds. Do you think she may have trimmed it a bit after Toronto?

April 29, 2005, 10:36 AM

Hm, interesting. Maybe she did. Girish noted that a recent version of L'Intrus was several minutes shorter.

I guess she may also have remembered incorrectly. Too bad she's in Tribeca (I think) or I might have a chance to follow up.

April 30, 2005, 01:03 AM

Actually, Darren, did you time the final water shot, or the earlier one? The earlier one is the shorter of the two, I believe.

I saw L'Intrus again this evening. (I'm so glad the festival used the Kabuki's large screen, really the only good screen at the Kabuki, and Lorraine and I were able to sit dead center with an unobstructed view — just great. They projectionist even went to the trouble of focusing the projector and aligning the frame.)

I didn't have a stopwatch, so I could be wrong, but the final shot of water (the one with the Tahitian islands in the back) seemed longer than 57 seconds.

Either way, I did notice just a couple of changes from the Toronto cut, although my memory may be faulty:

1) When Louis talks briefly with his son and daughter-in-law on the street, after the son says, "He's a lunatic," I believe the Toronto cut included a few more lines of dialogue, something along the lines of, "He was always like this," or "He was like this when we were little."

2) There was a scene, similar to the one where he's dragged through the snow, in which Louis is dragged into the ocean. I remember the horses in the water.

Other than that, the movie seemed just like I remembered it, which I'm very glad about. I was worried that she'd give in after the cool reception in Venice and Toronto and recut the film, but all of the mysterious, confounding imagery is there, including those long shots of water (if they're shorter, they're not noticibly shorter), the dog sled, the bloody heart, the funeral, the audition for sons, etc.

Seeing the film a second time, I'm more certain that it's great. It's something to get lost in. It's certainly a challenge, but it's worth the effort. The large theatre really showed off the sound design and the spare score. That scene where Louis's dogs are chasing him as he drives away is one of the rare moments where the guitar loop is joined by a trumpet, which seems like an emotional cue. The scene is surprsingly moving, even though they're just dogs. It makes me imagine Louis leaving his son behind in much the same way.

Also, knowing what was coming and being familiar with the structure helped me better appreciate the pacing. Louis goes to Geneva, goes to Seoul, has a heart transplant, and goes to Tahiti with almost no transitions. Zip zip zip. It's one subtly different hotel room after another, indicative of Louis's poor sense of distance, or his wishful thinking, his assumption that distances can so easily be bridged. It's only later that the long, long shots of water force some consideration of that distance.

May 1, 2005, 06:57 AM

I had forgotten about the dragging-through-water scene but did notice that the conversation between Louis's son and his wife had been trimmed. I wonder if she thought that scene was too literal.

I wonder if there's any way to get a recording of the score. It's another of those scores that I would be hesitant to listen to outside of the context of the film. But, still, it would be fun to have.

May 10, 2005, 11:46 PM

From a Q&A in Vienna:

There was never a reedit. The distributor asked me to cut the film shorter. Reediting a film is a very, very expensive process and we had no money for a remix of the sound. So we just cut out two sequences. We cut about four minutes. One part was with the girl in the snow pursued by the hunters which we shortened. There was also a sequence of Gregoire Colin's dead body floating across the Pacific ocean, washing up to the shore.
In general I don't like reediting films. They are enough trouble to make in the first place that the time to get it right is the first time.
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