French filmmaker Claire Denis has acknowledged a host of sources inspiring The Intruder, Jan.25-Feb.9 at the MFA, the tale of a sickly, reclusive Frenchman, Louis Trebor (Michel Subor), who, after paying hard cash and literally buying a new heart, sails for the South Seas, vaguely in search of a lost illegitimate son. Denis credits, in developing her movie, earlier voyages there, seeking life's meaning, by Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin, and even Marlon Brando. Cinematographer Agnes Godard's truly divine photography of the lush, yet always foreboding sea? It's an homage to the eerie ocean-world of F.W. Murnau's 1931 classic of doom, Tabu. Finally, Denis has explained that The Intruder sprang as a fictional variant of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy's true-life memoir of a heart transplant: afterwards, he felt an alien presence pounding in his chest!
There are other key influences, which go back to Denis' apprentice days, Before her 1988 first feature, Chocolat, Denis worked as an assistant director for filmmakers whom she still admires, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. From Wenders, she gets her melancholy, monosyllabic, protagonist, he traversing foreign lands without noticing his shifting surroundings, landing each night wherever in a gloomy hotel room. Also Wenders's road-movie manner of shooting: a small mobile crew, and scenes improvised along the way, the drama cued by the ever-shifting settings. Much of The Intruder --valuable scenes and irrelevant ones- seems made up on the spot.
And from Jarmusch? In an interview, Denis confessed a shock of recognition when a journalist pointed out to her how much The Intruder is akin to Jarmusch's 1996 masterpiece Dead Man. Both are intense, spiritual stories about a man moving closer and closer, step by step, to the grave.
Do a pile of worthy inspirations make a worthy film? The Intruder, watched for a coherent narrative, will frustrate even devotees of Denis, those who consider her 1999 Beau Travail one of the great works of recent cinema. The 140 minutes of The Intruder include, in scattered bits, about ten minutes of old-fashioned story. Louis Trebor lives in the French countryside with his two dogs, rarely sees his adult son (Gregoire Colin), has a pharmacist mistress, but flirts with a sexy woman (Beatrice Dalle) who is a dog breeder. One day, he frees his dogs, buys a new heart, and sails off for the South Seas. What else? Lots of scary surreal dream sequences, lots of dangling, sketchy scenes.
Can we relate to Trebor's search? Not really. He's cold and unsympathetic, Denis' intended vision. In interviews, she calls him The Man With No Heart. As for the free-form, avant-garde storytelling, Denis can only shrug. "I don't want to defend the film," she has said. "I think in a way people expect so much of a film, so many answers, that they are very much afraid to drift. The Intruder is like a boat lost in the ocean, drifting..."
The National Society of Film Critics, 55 reviewers from America's leading magazines and newspapers (including three from the Phoenix), made two unexpected selections at its recent meeting, picking Capote as the Best Film of 2005 and the German-Turkish Head-On as Best Foreign Film. And Kate Dollenmayer, star of the Boston indie, Funny Ha Ha, finished third in the polling for Best Actress. Three cool votes!
(Boston Phoenix, January 2006)