“My films, sadly enough, are sometimes unbalanced,” says filmmaker Claire Denis as we sip tea at the Toronto International Film Festival. “They have a limp or one arm shorter or a big nose, but even in the editing room when we try to change that, normally it doesn’t work.”
I nearly choke on my tea at this. Denis’ films are as graceful as they come. Bold and musical, warm and intelligent at the same time, they’re so subtle the flms often seemingly work on a subconscious level. Revisiting her movies invariably turns up something new, something placed carefully in the flow of the story by a sure hand, something that went previously unseen. A limp? A big nose? More like Fred Astaire.
“And I’m not proud of that,” continues Denis (pronounced “duh-NEE”). “I would like to be more neutral, so editing would be more like a feast—let’s try this, let’s try that—but it never works, and it’s painful sometimes.” Such statements aren’t coyness; she was just as self-deprecating after yesterday’s North American premiere of her latest work, The Intruder (L’Intrus).
Taking the microphone, she stood before a quietly perplexed audience eager for her to shed some light on the film’s mysteries. She offered a few thoughts: “For me it’s this idea of intrusion, that there are things in your life that you want and reject … that is very strange, to want something and at the same time you are tired of it.” But when one viewer, unsatisfied with her comments, said he’d stick to his own interpretation, she replied, “It’s probably better, anyway. Maybe my interpretation, now that the film is finished, is no longer necessary.”
What may sound like indifference is anything but: “You know, when I am shooting, every moment is strong. Every moment is important. I am interested in these moments … but I get a cold wind blowing on my neck and I think—oof—this is going to be hard for Q&A.”
Despite Denis’ apprehension, watching her movies is delicious. Her hallmark is an elliptical storytelling style requiring an active audience, and her films, though not quite puzzles, are full of gaps and undercurrents; she trusts the audience to put everything together.
Praising her first film, a semi-autobiographical story about a white French family living in colonial Africa, 1988’s Chocolat, film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “It is made with the complexity and subtlety of a great short story, and it assumes an audience that can understand what a strong flow of sex can exist between two people who barely even touch each other.” Such a statement might surprise those who’ve seen the movie, since it neither shows nor overtly discusses sex. But he’s right. The unsaid words in Chocolat could fill volumes.
The movie compares that part of the world’s racial divide with the horizon, a steady line separating the sky from the earth. You walk toward it, and it continually moves back. Of all the characters in the movie, the family’s African servant Protée best understands the social rules under which everyone lives, but the movie conveys his enormously complex outlook with very little dialogue. He’s a nearly silent presence in a house full of chatter. Chocolat is a movie for adults, in the very best sense.
Such maturity might be expected from someone who made her first film at the age of 40, and then after she’d worked as an assistant director for such legendary filmmakers as Jacques Rivette, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. Denis is the co-writer of all her films, and a wide variety of resources provide inspiration—from Melville and Faulkner to her own experiences growing up in Africa and France. She combines all this in films that are both incredibly cohesive and truly cinematic. Where a novelist might describe what a character is thinking, Denis will convey something similar in a fleeting shot with a nuanced perspective.
The Intruder is Denis’ 10th feature, and once again she draws on an eclectic range of sources. The original inspiration was Robert Louis Stevenson’s writings about the South Pacific islands and the paintings of post-impressionist Paul Gauguin who lived the last years of his life in Tahiti. The movie also recalls F.W. Murnau’s last film, Tabu, which takes place on and around Bora Bora.
Denis’ film may build on those sunny works, but it begins in a different hemisphere—along the snowy, mountainous border between France and Switzerland. This landscape is rife with symbolism; the people seem determined to keep each other at arm’s length. Guards patrol the border, forests surround lone cabins, and people travel with dogs for protection. And at the center of it all is Louis, a man who lives alone and has little interest in his son and grandchild in Geneva.
A book by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy provide both the film’s title and central idea. For decades, Nancy has written extensively about communities and how individuals relate to them. We’re never truly separate from those around us, he has observed, though we may sometimes assign outsider—or intruder—status to some individuals. When Nancy had a heart transplant 10 years ago, like a true philosopher he saw it as a metaphor; the same theme he’d been exploring for years now had a physical (and very personal) manifestation. The operation saved his life, but his body began to reject the new heart; it was a foreigner beating in his chest. Consequently, Nancy wrote about the experience in a 40-page booklet called L’Intrus.
Denis herself has explored similar themes in her films: the racial tensions in Chocolat, a new soldier rejected by a seasoned drill sergeant in Beau Travail, and a stranger who climbs into a woman’s car, and bed, in Friday Night—intruders and foreigners walking the line between acceptance and rejection. I asked Denis if any of her prior films were inspired by Nancy.
“No, I was not aware of anything. In a way I was even afraid to be too inspired by his text,” Denis says. “He contacted me when he saw Beau Travail, because he wrote an article about it. Of course, I had read L’Intrus at that time, and I did a small documentary with him.” More recently Denis made the conscious decision to incorporate Nancy’s heart transplant into her latest project. “One day I told him L’Intrus was going to intrude my script.”
“But there is a coincidence,” she adds. “I was preparing the film and he wrote a small book called Noli Me Tangere about the resurrection of Christ, the idea of resurrection. … I read it while I was shooting and I thought, ‘How strange,’ because me, I was inspired by this intrusion of the new heart, this very precise and physical book he wrote about rejection. And now he writes this thing about resurrection, which is another aspect of the film, without me knowing, you know? I had not read the book, and I thought, it’s as if we had been traveling in the same train or boat without knowing.”
Someone else who may have been on that train was actor Michel Subor who plays Louis. A 68-year-old man with a weathered face and perpetual squint, he seems to carry his history in his body. “He’s like a snail,” she says, her voice low and gravelly. She motions to her back, and I think of a shell. Denis had Subor in mind as she wrote The Intruder, an important detail because her films often favor images over dialogue and rely on actors who have unusual physical presences. She harnesses their unique traits for her visual poems.
In the film, Louis leaves France and journeys first to South Korea and then to Tahiti, which are as warm and sunny as the French mountains are frozen. First he buys a new heart, evidenced by the huge scar bisecting his torso, as if he’s both the Frankenstein-like scientist who lives in seclusion and the scientist’s pieced-together creation. Then he begins searching for the son he abandoned earlier in life. Perhaps finding him will be as easy as replacing a heart. There’s a hallucinatory moment during the journey when we suddenly see Subor as a young man sailing in the South Pacific. It looks like a clip from an old movie, and yet the only part that’s familiar is the face, the eyes, nearly 40 years younger.
“I didn't want to speak too much about the script to Michel [before it] was finished and we had raised the money. I didn't want him to think about it before, but one day I was mentioning Tahiti and he had this kind of blasé look. He said, ‘Oh, I've been to Tahiti.’” When she pressed him for details, he explained, “… I have been three months on a boat in Tahiti, starving … I did a film in 1962 made by Paul Gégauff and the film was never ended, never released, but I spent three months there.”
Both the producer of the film and Paul Gégauff were dead by then. A successful screenwriter who worked with Claude Chabrol and François Truffaut, Gégauff abandoned his only attempt to direct. “So I had been tracking the film with my assistant for months,” Denis says and then adds, her face lighting up, “and we found a print.”
Denis uses the clips of the unfinished film at the perfect moment when Louis is looking for a past that may not exist or that he aborted and probably can’t resume. She also used Subor’s history in her film Beau Travail where he resurrected the character he played in Jean-Luc Godard’s early film Le Petit Soldat. “Michel in a way, for me it is not like an old actor with the past of an actor. He’s a man who was a young actor and then had a life that was not secret, but nobody was aware of it. Now Michel is—I wouldn’t say unaware of acting, but he’s himself, you know? So then you can use his image as a young man without mentioning the actor but the man. Or a young face and the same face 40 years later.”
The Intruder seems like a dream—the hazy thoughts and fears of a man who’d rather cross the ocean than communicate with his very real son next door. When he arrives in the South, Louis wades across a shallow cove to carry boxes of supplies, even a mattress, to a small island where he’ll set up the perfect place to make amends. At least that’s his theory, but the island seems as isolated as the cabin he left in the mountains. Louis may believe in the idyllic life of Murnau’s Tabu, but Denis seems far more skeptical, not only when she shows unrecognizable 40-year-old footage, but also when she simply portrays the water, as if Louis’ great folly is not recognizing its vastness. In a mesmerizing scene near the film’s end, Denis delivers an extended shot of the ocean; it’s calm and serene but also a tremendous distance. The moment—and much of the movie—is infused with a rhythmic guitar loop by Stuart Staples of the British band Tindersticks, a haunting, unresolved riff, cold and sad in its ceaseless drone. Like so many scenes in Denis’ films, this one doesn’t need words.
The Intruder is far more fragmented than most of Denis’ films, and feels formal to the point of being clinical, although it’s certainly beautifully provocative. But even if I don’t fully understand it, I’ve learned that Denis’ movies take time. They’re worth coming back to. Compared to the dense philosophical writings of Jean-Luc Nancy, the movie is a montage of loosely connected images. “The big difference for me between what he wrote and what I try to do in the film is maybe …” She pauses. “My films are more formulated like questions, and being a philosophy teacher is more stating things.”
And the big nose? The limp? “Maybe my films are a little like Michel Subor’s character,” Denis says with a smile. “Even with a good nurse, you cannot change them.”
Frankly, I wouldn’t change them if I could.