May 26, 2011 / Filmwell
Kenji Koiso has his summer vacation all planned out: he and his friend Sakuma have …
September 20, 2005
(Ed. Note: This was originally published at Image Facts.)
L’Intrus opens on a French/Swiss border crossing, a regulated point through which foreign people and objects are allowed to enter at some amount of risk. In the first act of L’Intrus we do catch glimpses of illegal immigrants and goods making their way through the forest near this checkpoint, perhaps a sly political nod to the title which Denis doesn’t otherwise develop. But otherwise, in retrospect, this tangential introduction sets up the initial metaphor through which we watch the film. Psychological and physical intrusions into the life of its main character are charted and tracked, the illegal nature of their entry often making close surveillance difficult. Conscious and unconscious borders are continually crossed, often with little official regulation. Often in films that place dreams and reality side by side the director serves as a sort of border guard, indicating to the viewer that they are now crossing into a different state of mind. In L’Intrus Denis is conspicuously absent, the borders of her film left open to exploitation or misunderstanding.
The only literal (or lateral?) movement in the film is its several jarring geographical movements. Starting in the French countryside it moves as far as east Asia and eventually the South Pacific. But it is easier to talk about the subject of L’Intrus than its storyline. Louis is the aging recipient of a clandestine heart transplant. Other than this bare fact, we know only that he has a strained relationship with his only son’s young family, a loosely romantic relationship with the local pharmacist, an odd give and take with a neighbor who seems like a Nordic goddess ripped straight from a Jack London novel, and a guardian angel figure shadowing him like the reluctant heroine of a spy thriller. The last character may have had something to do with his illegal heart surgery. To be fair though, Denis has said that perhaps the only two actually real people in the film are Louis and his son. This perspective is eerily helpful on successive viewings.
These other characters, in varying stages of reality, are related somehow to Louis’ ambiguous past. We get hints from this vague network of places and characters that he has been hiding from something dangerous, criminal, and even dishonorable. He has somehow damaged his relationship to his son, and the last two acts of the film comprise his search for absolution. We only get the sense of a few facts scattered in among the confusing blends of dream and reality through which Denis allows us to see Louis. But what does eventually become clear is a sense of doom and regret that follows Louis in his journey to the South Pacific.
Originally, Denis had planned to stage the film in three literal acts: from the Jura region in France, to Korea, and then to the South Seas. But this North, Middle, South setup was too close to the structure of Godard’s Notre Musique (Hell, Purgatory, Heaven). What this structure would have done is enhanced the sense that the last act of the film mirrors the first act. Though the film is loosely about the clandestine heart transplant and some of its more sordid details, it really is about how his estrangement from his son is the embodiment of everything he has done wrong in his life. His search for a son (whether real or not) in the South Seas is the sad mimicry of an impossible repentance.
The novel, L’Intrus, which Denis has loosely turned into this film, speaks of the heart in a transplant as an odd sort of intruder. As in Louis’ case it is often an intruder that gives life to the body even as it is being rejected by the body, the body’s immune system slowly and painfully maintaining its alienation from the system. This notion sharply renders the political significance of the illegal immigrants in the first act, but it also serves to heighten the sense of Louis’ hopelessness. In the final act, his attempt to sustain his life ends up being the end of it, and he comes to grips with the fact that there really are no second chances physical or otherwise.
I had the good fortune to be at a screening after which a slightly inebriated Denis was on hand to explain the film to us. She is probably the best director for Q & A I have encountered, she considers every question very seriously and answers with an appropriate wit and sagacity. A few highlights:
– Naturally the audience was keen on understanding which parts of the film are real and which ones are dreams. She did point out a few of the obvious dreams (notably one of the final sequences in which Louis’ neighbor is thundering mythically across the snow behind a team of dogs). But even better than this, she explained that the whole film is scripted loosely, “like a dream.” She explained that it “seemed unfair to treat the dream scenes differently from the rest of the scenes. In films what means dream is sometimes a little clumsy.” She therefore just presents Louis’ experience to us, which turns out to be a “nightmarishly masculine dream.” When prodded about the clarity of her film, she simply replied that “For me, everything has to be clear or I cannot shoot. But in the end, clarity is not clear if you know what I mean.” The sort of clarity she is referring to here is that sought by more realist filmmakers. Often “clarity” in such films is just an illusion of reality. What Denis seems to stumble upon in her films are irrefutable emotional clarities, irrepressible realisms that present themselves immediately to a universal baseline of the viewing experience. As she said: “The film, it is not realistic, but it is real in its feelings.” And specifically regarding L’Intrus: “The film is only a proposal.” Perhaps we need to speak of her films as incomplete until public screenings, suggestions waiting to be incarnate in the emotional exchange between image and audience. Hearing her put it this way further convinced me of the genius of Vendredi soir. Also a film that is “not realistic but real in its feelings.” I still can’t figure out why I am the only one that thinks this is her best film.
– Denis noted that in previous films she wasn’t comfortable with using loops in the music of the soundtrack. When the musician she slated for this film presented to her the soundtrack, rife with counter-pointed loops, she realized that it actually fit the film very well. What is occurring in L’Intrus is basically the looped emotional afterthoughts of Louis in different mental and geographical states, and the music itself reflects this give and take.
– There are a few key external references made by the film. The first, and most thematically invigorating reference is that the last act of the film refers to a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson calledThe Ebb Tide, and perhaps even In The South Seas. (From the latter: For nearly ten years my health had been declining; and for some while before I set forth upon my voyage, I believed I was come to the afterpiece of life, and had only the nurse and undertaker to expect. It was suggested that I should try the South Seas; and I was not unwilling to visit like a ghost, and be carried like a bale, among scenes that had attracted me in youth and health.) At least in that collection of writings we can picture Stevenson, far from the renowned mythology of his youth, searching for that one elusive glimpse of paradise before his death. Fictional or not, it would have been worth just once washing up onto such a beach.
Somewhere in L’Intrus (another intruder perhaps?) are a series of clips from a filmed adaptation of The Ebb Tide starring the actor who plays Louis (Michel Subor). When Denis approached Subor after a lengthy location scout through the South Pacific, she told him about the strange off-the-beaten-path places she had encountered. Subor surprised her by claiming familiarity with many of these extremely out of the way villages and islands. It just so happened that years ago he had starred in a filmed adaptation of a novel that takes place in the South Seas that had never been completed. This film ironically employed many of the locations that Denis’ character eventually makes his way to in L’Intrus. After a three year search she found one copy of this unfinished film and decided to use some of its terrifically grainy footage inL’Intrus. The effect of this intrusion is haunting. This glimpse of his past, which turns out not to be as artificial as the viewer first thinks, grounds us in the emotional implications of his death. It is like looking at the family photos of someone who has recently passed away. Mimicking his heart transplant, the intrusion of these clips does breathe some life into the story; it at the very least grants Louis a past much realer than his present fever dream. But on the other hand it also serves as a point of comparison to his current emotional and physical devastation, a bitter reflection on the inflexibility of the past.
The third reference she makes is to Gaugin’s historic move to Tahiti. When one reads his diaries one gets the sense that he never really found paradise. And if it can’t be found there, then perhaps it just really isn’t meant to be found.