Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Dec 25, 2005 10:28 pm 
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Amidst the mostly conventional American movies of the Christmas season, watching Claire Denis’ new one is like taking a plunge in cold, fresh water. It begins with a series of visceral experiences – swimming, riding a bike, sex. There are beautiful sled dogs in the woods and a dope-sniffing customs dog managed by an attractive young woman. There’s a murder, a serious operation, and somebody is dragged bloody through the snow, none of this with any explanation. On the other hand a gentle husband coaxes his wife into bed and the camera later watches as he tenderly carries a baby across a field. The physicality is intense, unmediated much of the time by dialogue – or clear narrative links. The bare experience hits you and you realize how strong and simple and beautiful filmmaking can be, without any special expense or big crews: just a camera and a few actors and a clear eye and you’re there.

Eventually some connectives emerge. The customs dog belongs to Antoinette (Florence Loiret). Sidney (Grégoire Colin, who costarred in Denis’ Nénette et Boni and contributed notably to the beefcake poetry of her Beau Travail) is her house-husband, caring for their two little babies and tending to her erotic needs as soon as she gets home. The older man who pushes himself to his limits in the water and then on a bike, and whose heart isn’t quite up to it, is Louis (Louis Trebor, that is, Michel Subor, a Nouvelle Vague veteran who played an important role in Beau travail), and it’s plain he’s the main character this time. Sidney is his estranged son. In the woods training dogs is the gap-toothed Béatrice Dalle. Louis knows her. And he has sex with a lady pharmacist (Bambou). He doesn’t seem to care about any of these people very much, but they are present because of their relationship to him.

Louis has plenty of money, including a lot of cash in a Swiss safe deposit box (the action is set in the French Alps near Switzerland). He also has a powerful sex drive for a man his age, a hard-edged ambition and a ruthless outlook on life. He will kill without a moment’s hesitation. The sources of his cash don’t look too clean. He wants a new heart, and he is prepared to break the law to get it. He also wants to reclaim a long-lost Tahitian son. But none of this is completely clear. L’Intrus, which is loosely based on a book with the same name by a man (Jean-Luc Nancy) who got a heart replacement when not at all young, is more discursive, meandering, and poetic than explicit. You watch it as you study a puzzle, or as if you’re pricking up your ears to decipher a conversation that’s intense and sounds fascinating, though you can’t grasp the whole context. The mystery of this movie gives it an edge of reality a well-worked out, conventional storyline tends to lack. But it’s not “realistic.” All of this could be Louis’ dream, or parts of it. And he could be dead, or dying, or not.

There's no "solution" to The Intruder. In the book, the "intruder" is the alien transplanted heart, which the body of the older man rejects. But the man himself, wandering on his own and tied to nobody, then seeking to find a son in the Pacific islands, is an intruder too, in the lives of others and maybe even in his own.

This film has a certain similarity to Arnaud des Pallières’ 2003 Adieu, which also is a meditation on death and is similarly challenging, indeed off-putting, in the way it shifts scenes without easily discernible links, but Denis doesn't raise the social and political issues des Pallières does, and the failure to question Louis' values is troubling. It’s not so easy to see a consistent style in Denis’ films; they have a diaristic, personal quality and she certainly does what she wants. Growing up in French Africa (Cameroun) – hence her most famous film Chocolat, she has sympathy for outsiders in France and people on the edge. Beau travail, an abstract reworking of Billy Budd using the foreign legion in Djibouti, was beautiful if irritatingly arty. Vendredi soir/Friday Night was perfectly clear and linear, but irritating, a drawn-out woman’s fantasy about a one-nighter. L'intrus is certainly an improvement over the latter. And it is welcome to see a film that requires all our attention and then some. I’m not sure it has to be as opaque as it is, but I’m not sure it doesn’t, either. As a reviewer for the Guardian put it, "I’m still scratching my head over this one, but the itch is mostly pleasant."

Opened in New York December 23, 2005.

Dennis Lim's review of the film, "Troubled in Paradise," in the Village Voice, Dec. 13, 2005.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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