The Intruder

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Claire Denis’s remarkable film The Intruder (L’intrus) was first released in 2004, rolled out worldwide in 2005 and promptly disappeared. In some countries it was never shown at all; in the US, for instance, it’s only in 2021 that people are getting a chance to see it.

It is a deliberately oblique drama, constructed almost as a series of questions – where are we? who is this guy? who’s that strange woman? and what the hell is Béatrice Dalle doing in this film, and why for only for a handful of seconds?

Denis has said that she’s done this deliberately, having taken the original idea – an adaptation of an essay by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy – and then removed whole chunks of it, a pre-edit edit, to make a film with a dreamlike, impressionistic quality. “Like a boat lost in the ocean drifting” is how she has described it.

She achieves her effect by building in layers, a scene here, a beat there, and gradually details start to cohere into what looks like a story. A rich man who lives in the Alps, where he has a lover and an estranged son, heads off on something of a global gap year for the senior citizen, leaving his beloved dogs behind, stopping off in Korea to get what might be an illegal heart transplant, and finally pitching up in Tahiti, where he has another son from a liaison many years before.

Nothing is ever really explained in terms that explicit. The man is called Louis Trebor and is played by Denis regular Michel Subor, in his late 60s when this was made, but also appearing as a young man thanks to Denis’s re-use of footage from Paul Gégauff’s 1965 movie Le Reflux, in which the then young Subor starred. Trebor/Subor, the echo is deliberate.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s writings about his voyages provided the backbone of Le Reflux and is an inspiration here too, as are the global wanderings of Paul Gauguin, who also wound up in Tahiti like some late-life alien intruder.

Béatrice Dalle
The Queen of the Northern Hemisphere

What are we watching? Well, the soundtrack by Stuart Staples (of Tindersticks) is nudging us towards a thriller, and Subor’s powerful presence, his cryptic meetings with various unexplained people and the human tendency to take signals and fit them into a grid nudge us that way too.

Then, after the cold and aloof Louis has his heart transplant, it looks like we might actually have entered the realm of the vampire movie. Is Louis so rich that he simply will not die? Where did he get the heart from? Has some unfortunate given up the ghost so he might continue?

Or a Bond movie even – glamorous women keep popping up, seemingly for no obvious narrative purpose, there’s a race in the snow on horseback, the exotic locations, there’s at least one murder, some nudity, and a never-explained cloak-and-dagger subplot that seems to involve refugees crossing the border from Switzerland into France.

Whatever you call it, it’s mesmerising, or infuriating, depending on how go with this sort of thing. There’s an ineffable quality to Denis at her best, as in films like Beau Travail and Vendredi Soir (which made a woozily compelling drama out of two people sitting in a car).

But The Intruder is even more uncompromising than either of those, working through effects rather than plot reveals, layering one image or mood on top of another, the enigmatic Subor – good guy? bad guy? – holding the whole thing together with the same invisible skill that Denis is deploying in her direction.

It helps, too, that everything looks so fabulous, thanks to regular Denis DP Agnès Godard, who’s worked with the director since her 1988 feature debut, Chocolat.

Béatrice Dalle gets the last few seconds of the film, leering madly as she dogsleds across the icy wastes. Her character is called The Queen of the Northern Hemisphere, which almost lifts the film into another genre entirely, the fantasy. What a way to exit.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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