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A fragmentary and elusive cine-poem, Claire Denis’s The Intruder derives from a surprisingly matter-of-fact source. “The idea for the film came when I read Jean-Luc Nancy’s book about his own transplant,” says Denis. “I had an intuition that the story could be a metaphor of someone’s last trip toward death, but he’s not conscious of that—he considers his heart transplant as a chance for a new life. I connected the idea with my recollections of Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel writings toward the end of his life, or Paul Gauguin’s diaries. The trip toward the South Pacific islands becomes a ritual of going to a paradise to die.
“Nancy was shocked when he first read the script, because for him, to have a new heart was to be reborn. But by the time the film was made, he had been through so many rejection crises—he’s faced death so many times that it’s difficult for him to imagine anyone reading his book as a metaphor. A doctor told me that a heart transplant is a relatively easy job, like changing the part on a car, but it’s biologically and spiritually very hard on the patient, because the body, and sometimes the mind, is resisting the intruder. Nancy said that he felt as though his cells were an army of soldiers fighting with the wrong orders. I was so impressed that he could express a physical feeling in a metaphor, and that really gave me the freedom in the film to mix what is real and what is imaginary without a border between them, to treat them on the same level.”
As part of her research, Denis traveled to Marlon Brando’s Polynesian island of Tetiaroa. “It’s a beautiful and lonely place,” she says. “It had the feeling of a person who’s searching for a perfect world and can’t see that it’s impossible. I was hesitant to visit the island; I was trying to be invisible. It’s the one time in
my life when I felt like an intruder.”