Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Maybe It's a Trick of the Light

The Intruder / L'intrus
(Claire Denis, France, 2004, 35mm, 130 min.)


Where to begin with the latest burst of brilliance from cinematic illusionist Claire Denis--with the spooky opening or the ecstatic conclusion? Or should I simply describe what The Intruder is about? Normally, that would make the most sense, except I haven't quite figured it out yet. I was about to say I haven't quite figured it all out yet, but I'm not so sure that's even possible.

Last year, I finally caught up with I Can't Sleep (1994), which employs a similar structure, i.e. there are a number of different characters and Denis keeps shifting among them as the plot progresses. That story was based on an actual case in which elderly Frenchwomen were murdered and relieved of their valuables. I don't know if the real-life culprits were ever caught. Fairly early on, Denis reveals who the fictional ones are, but doesn't explain their motives. That said, she drops a lot of clues.

The Intruder is even more ambitious and laden with even more clues--or questions, depending on your point of view. The cast is bigger and there are more locations: France, Switzerland, South Korea, and French Polynesia. As with her previous films, Agnès Godard is back as cinematographer, Stuart Staples (the Tindersticks) is back as composer. (And most of the French actors are regulars.) Both are working at the top of their game, although the electric guitar-based music is used sparingly. Aquamarine-eyed Louis (Michel Subor, Petit Soldat) is the character around whom the others revolve. We spend the most time with him, but he remains an enigma.

Here then are a few "facts" about Louis. He lives in a spartan cabin in the Swiss Alps. He has two beautiful wolf-like dogs to keep him company. He's in his late-60s, but looks younger. Louis is in great shape; he swims, bikes--even strolls about in the nude. Sometimes he sleeps with an attractive middle-aged woman (Bambou, widow of legendary musician/provocateur Serge Gainsbourg) who works as a pharmacist in town. But something is wrong with his heart. It can't keep up with him.

Louis also likes to flirt with the sexy dog breeder down the road (Betty Blue's Béatrice Dalle, billed as "The Queen of the Northern Hemisphere"), who humors him, but otherwise keeps her distance. Were they once lovers? It seems possible. She isn't his only neighbor. The woods are filled with others, but it isn't clear who they are. There's a Russian woman (Katia Golubeva, Pola X), a young vagabond with a dog (Lolita Chammah, "The Wild Woman"), and a group of hunters. It occurred to me that some of these shadowy folk might not really exist. Or that they do, but that some of their actions are products of Louis' increasingly fevered imagination.

One day, Louis goes to his computer and sends a message that he's ready for the "experimental option." Long story short, he's arranged for a black market heart, and travels to Pusan for the operation. Next thing we know, the new ticker is in place, and he's off to Tahiti. Apparently, he was based there once and fathered a son with a local. His other son, Sidney (Grégoire Colin, The Dreamlife of Angels), lives with his family in France. Post-transplant, Louis seems more concerned about reconnecting with the son he's never known than the son he knows and from whom he's estranged. Was that always part of the plan or has the foreign organ changed him?

As for those other characters, it was the unnamed Russian who brokered the heart deal and appears to be following him around the world. Does she represent his guilty conscience? Possibly, because earlier in the film he fatally injured someone with whom she was associated. Was it an act of self-defense? Did it really even happen? Then, while he's out of town, the vagabond breaks into his cabin and makes herself at home. Not long afterwards, she disappears. Drops of blood are left behind. (The dogs are gone, too.) Did the hunters get her? After all, we do see them dragging a body through the snow...but then it appears to belong to a young man.

I could say more, but I fear I may have already said too much. From my description, you might think I'm suggesting a parallel to Alejandro González Iñárritu's 21 Grams (2003), which also concerned a heart transplant recipient (Sean Penn in his best performance). Inspired by the novella L'Intrus, The Intruder is much more mysterious. "Confusing" is a word detractors might use, and I wouldn't take issue with that, although confusion--or "willful obfuscation"--can be a good thing in the right hands.

As in latter-period Buñuel, Denis leaves out crucial pieces of information. I was never in doubt that she knew what she was doing, but I wasn't always sure why she was doing it. I'm still not, but I was spellbound from start to finish--and the spell hasn't broken yet. While Beau Travail (1999) may represent the pinnacle of her achievement, The Intruder comes close. Highly recommended.


The Intruder plays April 7-13, Fri.--Thurs., at 7pm and 9:30 at the Northwest Film Forum. Local critic/educator Kathleen Murphy will introduce the first screening. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. on Capitol Hill between Pike and Pine. For more information, please see www.nwfilmforum.org. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info or 206-267-5380 for show times.

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