Claire Denis’ L’Intrus was a foundational film in the development of my taste. It wasn’t the first of her films that I saw, but it was the one that really pulled me into an intense long-term relationship for her work. When I first saw it 15+ years ago, I thought it was one of the most stunning, enigmatic, alluring films I had ever seen. I recently watched Metrograph’s HD release and I felt the same way. It is my favorite Claire Denis film and in the running for my single favorite film of the last twenty years.
Most of Denis’ work has an elliptical quality; she forsakes the usual connective tissue of exposition and instead shows us evocative shards of narrative. L’Intrus pushes this tendency to its far extreme. At one point, we see the film’s unsympathetic protagonist, Louis Trebor, go to sleep in Geneva, Switzerland and then we see him wake up in Busan, South Korea. Further confounding the narrative, surreal waking events are juxtaposed with dreams in a way that unsettles the distinction between the two. But it would be a mistake to treat L’Intrus as an unsolvable riddle, as so many critics have. It’s not merely inscrutable phantasmagoria that we should let wash over us like a psychedelic lightshow. It’s presented as being inspired by Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay “L’Intrus,” and we ought to take that connection seriously and think about the direction it points us in for engaging with the film. This is easier said than done, however, since Denis’ film is connected to the essay only in the most esoteric ways (Nancy himself said that he didn’t see the connection after his first viewing).
Nancy’s short essay relates the concept of the intruder to his own heart transplant years earlier. Denis’ film does involve a heart transplant and includes a number of intruders of various sorts, but extrapolates far beyond the content of the essay. At the beginning of the film, we meet Trebor, a mysterious old man living in the Jura mountains with two dogs. He is played by Michel Subor, the actor most famous for playing Bruno Forestier in Godard’s Le petit soldat. He has only appeared in a handful of films since 1990 and most of them are by Denis. Fascinatingly, this is one of two movies by her where his backstory is supplied by another movie that she did not direct. His character in Beau Travail is Bruno Forestier, the same character he played in Le petit soldat. In L’Intrus, our only glimpses into Trebor’s past are clips pulled from Paul Gégauff’s unfinished 1965 film Le Reflux, where he played a sailor in colonial Polynesia. In both Beau Travail and L’Intrus he is a lingering vestige of the colonial era. He also appears in Denis’ Bastards and White Material, in both cases a sort of dark apparition of the previous generation. White Material again has a colonial context while in Bastards Subor’s character is part of the aging generation of rapacious capitalists. Taking all this together, we can see that Subor’s place in Denis’ cinema is as an avatar of past sins living on in the present. In L’intrus, this avatar is the protagonist rather than a menacing peripheral character.
We never learn exactly what Trebor did for a living, but his vast illicit wealth and penchant for bloodshed suggests that he was some sort of mercenary (this is the standard interpretation, at least). We see him early in the film basking in a forest with his dogs in a sequence that resembles Straub-Huillet’s idyllic forest compositions (I’m not sure what to make of the connection but I point it out because it is an unusual point of reference for Denis):
We also see him struggling with chest pain while swimming in a mountain lake. We will later learn that he requires a heart transplant. After pulling himself ashore, clutching his heart and catching his breath, he finds a cigarette butt in the sand… evidence of an intruder in this idyllic space. He looks towards the forest. We are shown a woman slinking through the trees, out of sight.
This woman is listed in the credits as “La sauvageonne” (“The wild child”). She is one of three mysterious, unnamed female figures we encounter early in the film. The first is “la jeune femme russe” (“The young Russian woman”), who speaks the first words of the film: “Your worst enemies are hidden inside, in the shadow, in your heart.” The third is Trebor’s neighbor, played by the great Béatrice Dalle. She is listed in the credits as “La reine de l’hémisphère nord” (“The queen of the northern hemisphere”). She lives alone with a whole brood of sled dogs but obviously hates Trebor and his dogs and considers him an intruder.
We also meet Trebor’s lover, “The pharmacist,” one of the few film roles of French model and singer Bambou (the longtime partner of Serge Gainsbourg). While basking in post-coital glow with her, he hears an intruder downstairs and gets up to investigate. We don’t see exactly what happens, but the intruder is La sauvageonne and Trebor apparently kills her with a knife before going back to bed. This is very possible a dream, but I think the film is ultimately unclear about this. We see him dispose of the body later, but we also see her alive later in the film (though that scene may very well have taken place earlier than the other events of the film, and there is some indication that it did– one can see why many consider L’Intrus an unsolvable riddle).
It’s becoming clear at this point that La sauvageonne is operating at a metaphorical level — we aren’t going to learn who she is or what she wants. We can find hints, however, in the text of Nancy’s essay. He writes, “My heart was becoming my own foreigner—a stranger precisely because it was inside. Yet this strangeness could only come from outside for having first emerged inside. A void suddenly opened in my chest or my soul—it’s the same thing—when it was said to me: “You must have a heart transplant. . . .”
The intruders appear for Trebor just as he has this realization– he must have a heart transplant. The flipside of accepting that one must have a heart transplant is accepting that someone else must lose their heart. The estrangement from one’s own heart is coupled with opening oneself to receive a strange heart. Strangers out in the world become possible donors– possible intruders. Later in the film, we learn that Trebor is particularly concerned that he not receive a woman’s heart, because he does not want to lose his character. At the same moment that Trebor experiences his own heart as an intruder, he apprehends himself as an open wound waiting to have his own intruding heart removed and then the cavity filled by the fresh intrusion of his future heart. The most apt way to understand La sauvageonne as Trebor’s projection of the unknown strangers who could provide his new heart. His killing of La sauvageonne can be understood as a ruthless step to prevent a woman’s heart from intruding into his body. She sneaks into the house in the dead of night to emasculate him while he lays naked with his lover. If this sequence is a dream, it’s a dream about his fear of receiving a woman’s heart.
When Trebor kills La sauvageonne, we also see the young Russian woman who delivered the opening lines of the film standing outside, watching and judging. Soon we see Trebor log on to an old computer and send an ominous message in Russian. He wants to take the “emergency option.” He is told he’ll need to bring money. We can infer that he is purchasing an illegal heart transplant on the black market. The person who responds to his message–we soon learn after Trebor travels to Geneva to retrieve cash from a safe deposit box–is the young Russian woman. He pays her a large wad of cash and also buys himself an expensive new watch. In a clear dream sequence (clear because we see him wake up from it), Trebor is dragged through the snow by the young Russian woman and another figure on horses. He protests “But I’ve already paid!” Her response is the apex of existential torment in the movie: “YOU’LL NEVER PAY ENOUGH.”
From here we see a post-transplant Trebor contracting with a South Korean shipyard for the construction of a large vessel. We don’t know exactly how large, but we know that the executives at the shipyard investigated Trebor’s finances and found that he has vast assets and the backing of a bank before they agreed to build the ship. He explains that it is a gift for his son, a sailor who loves the sea. They ink the deal and drink to celebrate. For the last section of the movie, we see Trebor in Tahiti, ostensibly searching for his lost son. This is the point of the movie where we see flashbacks to his youth pulled from Le Reflux. I haven’t mentioned this but earlier in the film we met another character who is evidently Trebor’s son, Sidney, played by Denis regular Grégoire Colin. Sidney is portrayed as an exceptionally empathetic and nurturing man– the polar opposite of Trebor. His wife is a border agent (someone who protects the border from intruders) and in a moving early scene we see him talk her through a sort of guided meditation after she returns home from work in obvious distress. In another earlier scene, we see Trebor meet Sidney’s wife on the street with her two young children. Trebor is surprised to see that they now have a girl in addition to the boy, but he is wrong. He’s told that not only is the younger child a boy, he’s even named after his grandfather: his name is Louis. Meanwhile the young Russian woman is seen looking on in judgment.
Does Trebor have two sons, one in France and one in Tahiti? Or does he only have one son, Sidney, and is his journey to Tahiti in search of his son a purely metaphorical element of the film? Perhaps Sidney was originally born to a Tahitian mother? The film provides no answer to these questions, though many critics assume that their are two sons. I do not think we are entitled to this assumption, especially in light of the ending, which I will not spoil here (but my point should be obvious for those who have seen it).
He explains that he wants to find his son in part because “everything I own is his.” But he cannot find his son anywhere, and islanders insist that he has become theirs, not Trebor’s. But Trebor finds his old hut and starts fixing it up to take up residence there (prompting the memorable image of he and a friend carrying a mattress through the shallow ocean waters).
What’s most striking to me through this section of the film is Trebor’s sense of entitlement to redemption. He is wealthy, therefore he is redeemed. Passing his wealth to his son– and gifting him a ship–redeems his actions. His previous words “but I’ve already paid!” gain a new resonance. “You’ll never pay enough.” Whether Sidney is his only son or not, his journey to Tahiti can be seen as a Gauguin-esque quest of selfishness. He has left behind a son who loves him. If Sidney is his only son, Denis’ surreal narrative gambit is doubly brutal. He brusquely passes on genuine redemption in order to pursue a grandiose romanticized version that serves only himself. It is he who is the sailor; it is he who loves the sea, not his son. It is he who is drawn to leave his family behind to despoil the southern hemisphere. His son waits faithfully in Europe, with a son of his own named after a grandfather who doesn’t care at all.
There is a large body of academic literature on L’Intrus and most of it focuses on the post-colonial dimension of the film. Trebor’s past in French Polynesian and his journey to Tahiti in the film must indeed be understood against France’s colonial history. This is a theme that pervades Denis’ work. But I think academic commentators make the mistake of downplaying the more personal dimension of L’Intrus in favor of its world-political dimension. The political dimension of the film is just one layer, and it is not a privileged layer. It is the macro-dimension of the personal story that the film is more closely concerned with. The ultimate intrusion is that of the northern hemisphere into the southern (which casts different light on the naming of Dalle’s character “the queeen of the northern hemisphere”). I will not discuss this dimension further here, but there is a large body of (not very exciting) scholarship on the topic waiting for anyone who cares. I prefer to take the colonial context as background rather than as foreground. It inflects the foreground, for sure, but it doesn’t supplant it.
To return to Nancy’s text:
“This was always, more or less, the life of the infirm and the aged: but, precisely, I am neither one nor the other. What cures me is what infects or affects me; what allows me to live causes me to age prematurely. My heart is twenty years younger than I am, and the rest of my body (at least) a dozen years older. So having at the same time become younger and older, I no longer have an age proper, just as, properly speaking, I am no longer my own age. Just as I no longer have an occupation, although I am not retired, so too I am nothing of what I am supposed to be (husband, father, grandfather, friend) unless I remain subsumed within the very general condition of the intrus, of diverse intrus that at any moment can appear in my place in my relations with, or in the representations of, others [autrui].
In a single movement, the most absolutely proper “I” withdraws to an infinite distance (where does it go?; into what vanishing point from which I could still claim that this is my body?) and subsides into an intimacy more profound than any interiority (the impregnable recess wherefrom I say “I,” but that I know to be as gaping [béant] as this chest opened upon emptiness, or as the slipping into the morphinic unconsciousness of suffering and fear, merged in abandonment). Corpus meum and interior intimo meo, the two together state very exactly, and in a complete configuration of the death of god, that the truth of the subject is its exteriority and excessivity: its infinite exposition. The intrus exposes me, excessively. It extrudes, it exports, it expropriates: I am the illness and the medical intervention, I am the cancerous cell and the grafted organ, I am the immuno-depressive agents and their palliatives, I am the bits of wire that hold together my sternum, and I am this injection site permanently stitched in below my clavicle, just as I was already these screws in my hip and this plate in my groin. I am becoming like a science-fiction android, or the living-dead, as my youngest son one day said to me…..
The intrus is no other than me, my self; none other than man himself. No other than the one, the same, always identical to itself and yet that is never done with altering itself. At the same time sharp and spent, stripped bare and over-equipped, intruding upon the world and upon itself: a disquieting upsurge of the strange, conatus of an infinite excrescence.”
Nancy isn’t the sort of writer who goes out of his way to make sense, but there is a relatively clear thought in this bit of the essay. His transplant represented a sort of intrusion of the other into himself, but at the same time the strain of going through it aged the rest of his body. He ends up with a younger heart than before but otherwise feels older. He is, at the end point of the process, composed entirely of parts that he experiences as intruders, and therefore is himself “the intruder.”
I take this passage to be the lynchpin connecting the film and the essay. The film begins by chronicling a series of intrusions as experienced by Trebor, but it ends up with the realization that he’s been the intruder all along. You may find this a cryptic closing thought on my part, but it is appropriate to such a wonderfully cryptic film. L’Intrus doesn’t simply hand itself over to any viewer who stumbles in. On first viewing, it’s hard not to experience the film itself as a sort of intruder. Like most of Denis’ work, it takes more than one viewing to even begin to unearth its riches. My aim here is just to offer a sketchy map pointing towards a way of engaging with it that I’ve found fruitful.