The twenty best films of this decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Adam Nayman on L’Intrus
After I resolved to write about about Claire Denis’s L’Intrus for this round-up, I decided it might make sense to start with my piece on the film from 2005, when it placed sixth on Reverse Shot’s list of the year’s best films. That it has leapfrogged all but one of the titles ahead of it from that year for this best-of-the-decade reckoning probably speaks to some prosaic matters, like an influx of new writers and a general reshuffling of the auteurist deck amongst this critical circle (Denis’s stock has gone up, as evidenced by the recent Reverse Shot retrospective on her career). But it also suggests that, for all its utterly enveloping, immediate sensory pleasures, L’Intrus holds up to and gains considerably from multiple viewings (something I’m not sure could be claimed for, say, A History of Violence, 2005’s number four with a shotgun bullet).
My main concern was that my original essay—filed, I say not by way of excuse but in matter of fact, in a jet-lagged haze from the media lounge of the Rotterdam International Film Festival, where I was serving as a juror—would not prove nearly so durable. I thus thought that it might be useful for me to take another look at the film by revisiting and appending my original take. I’m surely not second guessing my admiration for L’Intrus, which, if anything, has only increased. My hope is that by foregrounding the shifts and gradations in my account of it, I might better do justice to its contents—and to the truth that the films and filmmakers that we love are always and quite necessarily changing right along with us. The selections from my 2005 review appear in bold; the new material follows in plain type.
L’Intrus, which has been routinely described as impenetrable (including by myself after my first viewing) in the year and a half since premiering on the film festival circuit in 2004, is best analyzed in light of its creator’s twin preoccupations.
Which, for those of you keeping score at home, would be 1) the human body and 2) postcolonial anxiety. Denis’s uncanny ability to frame and follow the human form, which makes her one of the cinema’s great sensualists, is complemented by a tendency towards an oblique political critique: think of Beau travail’s shirtless, hapless Legionnaires, who function simultaneously as erotic objects and avatars of French occupation in Africa. No doubt that L’Intrus, with its border-crossing motifs and focus on physicality, reflects and refracts back across Denis’s filmography, but I should add that in the interviews I’ve done with her since—on the occasion of this film, and also 35 Shots of Rum and White Material—she firmly rejects the idea that she has “preoccupations” as such. Standard operating procedure for festival-circuit interviews, and yet I truly believe that Denis took an intuitive, exploratory approach to the material. Which is why, despite its abundance of resonances, rhymes, and echoes, L’Intrus seems to be finding its shape for most of its running time. Hence a few of its early emphases—like the erotic game instigated by Grégoire Colin for his border-guard wife, a visualization exercise centered on a forest not unlike the one prowled by Louis—end up feeling a bit weightless, while something probably equally throwaway to Denis’s overall conception, like the ecstatic final shot of Béatrice Dalle driving a group of sled dogs through a newly Louis–free winter-scape, gives an impression of being Very Important. (My guess: not so much). Repeated viewings have completely destroyed the sense of “impenetrability,” of course, and when I’ve watched it with somebody seeing it for the first time, I’ve found myself getting unaccountably frustrated with their (quite honest) bafflement—even though the first thing I said to my partner when we stumbled out of the TIFF ’04 screening was “What in the holy hell was that?”
[L’Intrus] is a movie about Louis, an aged soldier of fortune (Michel Subor, resplendently craggy) whose body appears to be breaking down. He brokers himself an under-the-table heart transplant and then tries, at great expense, to reconnect with his estranged son, who may or may not be in Tahiti. That’s a thumbnail sketch of the film’s objective chronology, although truthfully, this description is akin to saying that Mulholland Drive is a film about an actress who has her sometime lover murdered and feels really, really bad about it. Like Mulholland Drive, L’Intrus obliterates the literal-figurative binary: the real and unreal coexist at a single level of narrative reality. One example: Louis lives, with several beautiful dogs, in a cabin in the woods on the French Swiss border. He is subject to occasional attacks by masked intruders, whom he fends off in brutal style. As far as I can tell, this is literally happening, but these anonymous interlopers with their popping guns and furtive, swarming movements also seem representative of Louis’s encroaching heart condition. When he murders one of them, the act can be read as an act of internal defiance: His body is staving off failure.
One of the odd things about L’Intrus is that its crystalline moment-to-moment details recede in memory so that, no matter how many times I’ve watched it, there are always key bits that I’ve forgotten. Thinking of the film now, I wonder how I could have failed to mention the “audition” held in Tahiti, in which a parade of young men vie for the “role” of Louis’s absent son. This scene is interesting in that it introduces a semi-documentary quality to the film—the men, all locals, don’t appear to be “acting”—which is nevertheless subsumed into the overall waking-dream texture. Leaving aside the little magic-realist curlicues around the edges of Friday Night—which unfortunately led one friend to compare it to Amèlie (!)—Denis has never really staged “fantasy sequences”: rather, she focuses so intently on individual subjectivity that the resulting abstraction of a surrounding reality plays as a kind of enchantment.
Looking back on my comparison to Mulholland Drive, I think I may have understated L’Intrus’ accomplishment. Lynch at least acknowledges the presence of a “real” Ground Zero from which the nightmare version of Betty’s life springs. There’s no such orienting point in L’Intrus, which starts, progresses, and ends in a fugue state. And yet the film also feels more controlled and “realistic” than Mulholland Drive—and obviously far more connected to “real” world issues than Lynch’s typically (and appropriately) apolitical Hollywood pop-up epic. If you wanted to read Louis as an avatar of encroaching Occidentalism, buying his way across the world in attempt to make himself whole, that works just fine, even if Denis never moves the action west of the GMT; where a roughly comparable French auteur like Bruno Dumont gestures towards and even journeyed to the U.S., Denis always uses it as a structuring absence (I think that the only scene in any of her films “set” in America is when Vincent Gallo looks down at the blinking lights of Denver en route to Paris in Trouble Every Day).
L’Intrus represents the apotheosis of Denis’s odd brand of naturalism. Beau travail and Trouble Every Day were attempts to convey interior struggle through external observation, but L’Intrus is almost hysterically ambitious; the lead character remains totally unknowable except via external observation. Subor’s performance doesn’t give us much—his features are impacted, and what little dialogue he has is spoken tersely. But in a brief, wordless scene, when we see him making love with his pharmacist girlfriend, the black spots on his back line up with the freckles on her face in a way that seems revelatory—Denis suggests they’re a mottled match.
“Naturalism?” Really? In my last year of undergrad, I wrote a paper in which I tried to group Denis, Bruno Dumont, and the Dardennes under the admittedly vaporous rubric of “French-language naturalism,” and I always felt—now more than ever—that she was the odd girl out in my study. No question that observation figures into her aesthetic, but L’Intrus seems more obviously a work of cinematic Impressionism, or, given the clear influence of Paul Gaugin’s South Seas canvases on its final movements, postimpressionism. Denis gives us the glory of natural forms buoyed by a sense of perpetual motion. I’m hard-pressed to think of any shots in L’Intrus that feel still; the few static set-ups describe all manner of shifts and fluctuations within the frame (like the amazing shot of streamers ruffling at a cruise ship’s christening). In fact, a lot of reviews (including mine) fail to really communicate the speed of the storytelling. Louis’s campaign to obtain a new heart is structured as a kind of cloak-and-dagger intrigue with the exposition scooped out, and, as in Trouble Every Day, Denis seems to be slyly kidding certain genre-movie tropes (i.e. the shadowy network that procures Louis’s new heart).
Denis’s script is adapted from an autobiographical novel by the French philosopher Jean-Louis Nancy, who wrote about his own heart transplant as a metaphor for “intrusion”—the new organ as unwelcome visitor. L’Intrus is about the alienating effects of Louis’s heart transplant, but it’s also about the kind of intrusions that appeared in Chocolat, I Can’t Sleep, and Beau travail: strangers in places where they don’t belong. Louis’s journey to Tahiti includes a layover in Korea, where he bonds with a drunken businessman over the lyrics of an Elvis Presley song: pop as the great common denominator. Louis’s feral intensity is out of place in Korea, but by the time he boards a boat for the turquoise frontiers of Tahiti, he might as well be an alien. It’s suggested that Louis had spent time there as a young man, and that he is returning, at the end of his life, in search of personal closure, but this paradise doesn’t really want him: the key image of the film finds Louis carrying a mattress through shallow ocean waters, an indelible image of humanity imposing a need for personal comfort within untenable environments.
That’s still the money shot for me, and one that came to mind while watching Jim Jarmusch’s (vastly inferior) attempt at fugue-state cinema, The Limits of Control: in fact, I wonder if his image of a claw-footed bathtub being lugged across the street (introduced by Tilda Swinton waxing dully philosophic about the ineffable quality of great movie scenes) is a reference to L’Intrus (it would fit given another seeming visual quote, of Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth). In my first stab at the film, I didn’t really discuss the implications of the film’s Soderberghian gambit wherein old footage of Subor, taken from Paul Gégauff’s 1965 adventure drama La Reflux, stands in for flashbacks to Louis’s original arrival to the island. Besides foregrounding film’s indexical nature, etc., it gets at something I’ve had reason to think about lately with regard to Denis: the way her films reach back through the French canon without being especially referential or reverential. But Denis’s appropriations nevertheless force the viewer to consider her within the ebb and flow of French cinema. The most explicit example, of course, is Subor’s participation in Beau travail, which ostensibly finds him reprising his role from Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit soldat—locating him three decades after that film’s shattering ending. The suggestion in L’Intrus that Louis Trebor has his own free-standing (cinematic) past creates a sense of continuity within the film and also inside Denis’s filmography, with its recurring actors (Subor, Colin, and Dalle, but also Katia Golubeva and Alex Descas, both featured briefly in L’Intrus), all of whom always feel as if they “belong.”
There’s no question that L’Intrus is challenging, and that dissenters come by their aversions naturally. But Claire Denis comes by her ellipticism naturally, too: there’s nothing in L’Intrus that suggests obfuscation. In keeping with her past work, it’s a movie about the vast spaces that lie between countries and within people, rendered as a slowly oscillating fever dream of conflicting moods: it’s at once languorous and terrifying, erotic and impassive, monumentally distanced and yet finally intimate in a way that is, to my mind, without recent cinematic precedent.
A lot of adjectives there, to which I would add: singular. Four years on, I still haven’t seen anything quite like L’Intrus—from this decade or any other.