Claire Denis’s tactile tone poems are premised on the primacy of sensory experience. Beau Travail (1999), her ecstatic Billy Budd distillation, pushed her pictographic style in the direction of a new language, a nonverbal mode that she continued to toy with in films as disparate as the vampire gorefest Trouble Every Day and the hookup reverie Friday Night. Allergic to the dictates of linear storytelling, her movies have grown increasingly convulsive in their ellipses and associations—more than any other narrative filmmaker working, Denis chases the rapture of rupture. Her latest feature, The Intruder, is a decisive breakthrough—her most poetic and primal film to date, as thrilling as it is initially baffling.
It’s clear enough that The Intruder is a dying man’s long goodbye; whether it’s a final accounting of a guilty conscience, a premonition of the hereafter, or a little of both is harder to say. There’s a fair chance at least half the movie takes place in the protagonist’s head. But Denis declines to distinguish between planes of reality: Fluidly merging an interior and an exterior journey, the film establishes a dreamy parity between memory and anticipation, fact and hallucination. Denis claims as inspiration French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s “L’Intrus,” an account of his heart transplant that ponders the existential implications of this corporeal intrusion. Denis, more intuitive than analytical, applies the text’s pungent sense of internal foreignness—along with its push-pull of encroachment and rejection—not just to the human body but also to the natural world, border crossings, post-colonial dynamics, fathers and sons.
For what is essentially an adaptation of a metaphor, The Intruder is almost shockingly concrete. Its intractable physicality owes much to Michel Subor, a man’s-man presence in the lead role, and the imposing landscapes in which he’s often framed. A weathered re- cluse, Subor’s Louis lives with his beloved huskies in a mountain cabin near the Franco- Swiss border. Peripheral characters are glimpsed: an estranged son (Grégoire
Colin), a dog breeder (Béatrice Dalle), a pharmacist fuck buddy (Bambou). At one point, Louis arranges for a heart transplant, negotiating with a black-market trader (Katia Golubeva), who later assumes the role of his stalking conscience–cum–angel of death.
Nancy terms his transplant a “metaphysical adventure”—and the phrase perfectly describes Denis’s film as well. With a new ticker, Louis escapes to the other side of the world, in search of a new life—or a place to die. The Intruderimagines the post-transplant condition as a simultaneous rebirth and afterlife. As the languorous last rites for a man slowly expiring (or already dead), The Intruder at times suggests Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man; echoing Neil Young’s ominous score, Tindersticks frontman Stuart Staples fashions a hypnotic guitar loop on the soundtrack, an invitation to submit to the film’s churning eddies.
Louis has a shady past, lots of money, and blood on his hands. Stopping off in Geneva and Pusan, he ends up in Tahiti, looking for a son he says he once fathered; in a discordantly light and funny sequence, the indulgent islanders hold an audition for suitable candidates. There’s a coldness—one might say heartlessness—to Louis’s quest, reducible as it is to a series of monetary transactions. He buys a new vital organ, a new ship, and even a new son (though he can’t quite shake off the old one).
Intrusion is the theme—as well as the organizing principle—of this subliminally violent film. The identity of the intruder and the nature of the incursion are continually shifting. The title most obviously refers to Louis’s grafted organ, a stranger within, but also to the dreams that come with it—hauntings that invade his consciousness so completely that we and he can no longer tell the difference. The second half’s hemispheric inversion positions Louis himself as the intruder. In the most astonishing of the formal intrusions, Denis splices in Subor-in- Tahiti from four decades ago, using clips from Le Reflux, Paul Gégauff’s unfinished adaptation of Stevenson’s The Ebb Tide.
Cinematographer Agnés Godard ensures that almost every image leaves a retinal imprint, even more so the less explicable ones: a heart palpitating in the snow, a sunbathing Louis spooning with his dogs, an infant in a sling beaming up at his father, rainbow streamers billowing off a newly christened ship, two men in knee-deep water hoisting a mattress ashore, a cloth-covered coffin on a forklift. In a shot that lasts nearly two minutes (and feels longer), we see the immense ocean from a bobbing ship deck. The finale, as orgasmic as Beau Travail‘s Eurodisco exclamation, is a delirious blur of motion, Dalle and her huskies sledding into the snowy wilds. This mysterious object may be Denis’s most gorgeous film (which is saying something), but more than that, it’s a fearless filmmaker’s boldest experiment yet, a direct line from her unconscious to yours.