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Transplanted Territories: Claire Denis’s "L’Intrus" (2004)

Claire Denis’s enigmatic film remains uncontainably expansive, immersive, and unpredictable.
Yasmina Price
The opening shot is of Katia Golubeva, playing the unnamed Angel of Death, lighting her cigarette as a disembodied voiceover, which still seems to belong to her, says “Your worst enemies are hiding inside, in the shadow, hiding in your heart.” Claire Denis’s 2004 L’intrus is a film of internal threats. It places the inconsolability of self-alienation and the impossibility of ever escaping yourself into fraught relation with the porous borders of the body and refusals of sociality. One of the signatures of Denis’s cinema is her sensualist fixation on bodies, isolated but also integrated into space, offering them as moving surfaces that themselves tell stories and resist the stories imposed on them. Possibly both intruder and intruded upon, Michel Subor as Louis Trebor is the absent heart of L’intrus, his failing body catalyzing the narrative crisis surrounding his travels for a heart transplant. A crisis that is interwoven with his futile search for a lost son in Tahiti.
Across her filmography, Denis destabilizes assumed hierarchies of sense or meaning making between people and their surroundings. While there are interior scenes, this film is overwhelmed by its exteriors. L’intrus is a film of landscapes, and Denis’s constant collaborator, cinematographer Agnés Godard, offers an infinite series of elongated shots of dark woods, swathes of snow, warm grassy pastures and shrouded views of the sea. The landscapes take on a sort of physiognomy—pensive, threatening, romantic—presenting almost more affective variation than Trebor’s stoic, impassive presence. These wide-open spaces also carry the more sinister idea that there is nowhere to hide. Uninterrupted and boundless, they undermine the human projects of maps and frontiers which are staged in L’intrus, wherein patrolled borders are always running counter to an uncontainable nature that will never recognize such distinctions.
The specific geographies of the film—from the Jura Mountains in France, to Switzerland, Korea and finally Tahiti—and the thematic concern with the continuations of colonialism throughout Denis’s filmography evoke the disciplining, regulatory function of certain maps as imperial projects. These colonial cartographies take on a transplantation of territories, invading lands and displacing the people indigenous to them in order to re-plot them as the “periphery,” re-situated in relation to European centers of power. L’intrus traffics in a similar spatial re-arrangement, doubling body/land in a way that contracts far flung geographic coordinates. L’intrus suggests that the body is also a territory marked by time and violence, scarred with monitored with points of entry. The bridge between the narrative drama of the heart transplant and the formal movements of the film function as a series of transplanted territories. Denis’s film is a layering of internal/external, lived/dreamed, glacial/tropical territories that should be distinguishable, but are instead threateningly intertwined.
L’intrus has accumulated a reputation as being impenetrable, singled out as the most enigmatic piece from a filmmaker whose work is rarely plotted for conventional storylines or discernable resolutions. The story, such as it is, is an elliptic traversal of unbound geographies accompanying a protagonist whose past activities and present motivations are never entirely clarified. However, I would suggest that instead of assigning the film to impenetrability, we might consider it too porous, dangerously open, a rejection of those enclosures that even Denis has called on to structure her other films.
L'intrus enters her sequence of loose adaptions—notably Beau Travail (1999) to Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1888) and Un beau soleil intérieur (2017) to Roland Barthes’s A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1977)—which trouble what is expected of the text-to-film translation. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy published L’intrus in 2000, a slim text about his heart transplant, which Denis read while shooting her erotic vampire thriller Trouble Everyday (2001). Their first cinematic encounter was around this time, in Vers Nancy (2001), Denis’s portion of an omnibus in which the philosopher is filmed on a train, speaking to a student about national identity, foreignness, homogeneity and intrusion. These are the same concerns that animate his text of L’intrus, which is also deeply preoccupied with self-alienation. Nancy’s heart transplant serves a metaphorical function for a meditation on intrusions of the individual physical body and the collective social body, as well an uneasy limbo between life and death. The transplant can be figured as an ultimate hospitality: a dangerous and life-saving act of literally inviting a stranger to live inside you.
Before leaving for his heart transplant, the film’s protagonist Trebor lives in isolation in the Jura, which marks a border between France and Switzerland. Denis opens the film so as to elongate the theme of intrusion from Nancy’s book through a shadowy backdrop of “illegal” crossings. One of the first scenes is at a police border checkpoint, where a female officer sets a customs dog to sniff out drugs from a purple van. Right before the film’s mesmerizingly unforgettable credit sequence—where the title appears illuminated by the roving glow of a cigarette butt—comes a phantasmic shot panning over ominously dark treetops that shows men moving furtively through the woods and hopping a small stone wall. These initial scenes accent a hyperawareness of divided and policed spaces, which for some cannot be crossed in the light of day. The border and its maintenance are always a violence.
Trebor is introduced as a vulnerable and observed body. He is first staged in a pastoral idyll: shown in profile, his face basking in sunlight, lounging naked in the woods with his two dogs. Denis’s deft ability to generate disquiet is introduced through a shift to a shaky hand-held camera shot that suggests he’s being spied on as he walks out of the woods to go for a swim. Unwanted and secretive observation recurs in the film, with Trebor as both victim and perpetrator—the latter suggested, for example, when Béatrice Dalle’s character asks him if he’s spying on her, by way of a greeting. In the midst of his swim, Trebor, who is in fact being watched by a man in the trees across the way, clutches his chest in pain. He flops onto the ground at the water’s edges, breathing heavily, the camera tight on his face, alternating with close-ups of his hands in the dirt. The camera lingers on the leathery cragged skin of his body, marked by age and yet endowed with a certain sturdiness compared to the diaphanous, pastoral landscape around him. This is the heart trouble that catalyzes the narrative arc of the transplant.
This particular conceit is framed by another form of transplantation which is always at play in Denis’s cinema and appears in L’intrus through a familiar cast of actors (Michel Subor, Grégoire Colin, Alex Descas, Béatrice Dalle), as well as the circulation of key crew members (Agnés Godard, Nelly Quettier, Jean-Louis Ughetto, Jean-Pol Fargeau). Michel Subor’s presence in particular opens the cinematic circuits of L’intrus. Critically, he carries with him the many lives of the character of Bruno Forrestier. He first appears in Jean-Luc Godard’s Le petit soldat (1960), as a French photojournalist who crosses the border to Geneva to desert the army at the time of the Algerian War of Independence, later entering into a French rightwing spy network. Denis subsequently plucked out the Forrestier character and placed him in Beau travail as a commander of a French Legion stationed in Djibouti. This self-reflexivity is part of the broader intertextuality which animates her cinema, which for this film includes other sources of inspiration such as the short stories of Robert Louis Stevenson and Paul Gauguin’s travel diaries. Towards the end of L’intrus another film intrudes through Denis’s citation of Paul Gégauff’s unfinished Le reflux (1965). This film starred a younger Michel Subor and was set in Tahiti—the final location of L’intrus. The images formally alternate and symbolically bleed together, making it seem as though Le Reflux is a dream or a memory of Denis’s film. While Trebor’s professional and personal backstory remains a sinister haze, the impression of a mercenary and military past is fed by Subor’s historiography as an actor. The role of Trebor, which was written specifically for him, adds an almost auto-biographical dimension to L’intrus by stringing together his cinematic selves. 
Denis’s cinema is often filled with similar hauntingly uneasy and inexact doublings–such as the Legionnaires in Beau Travail and the twinned pair of protagonists in S'en fout la mort (1990). Both Subor and Grégoire Colin, who plays his son in L’intrus, had also previously occupied father/son (or father-like/son-like) positions in her filmography, in Beau Travail, S'en fout la mort and Nénette et Boni (1996). L’intrus is also about lines of filiation: whatever is purported to pass from father to son, what is deemed legitimate and what is sustainable in those connections. Colin plays the son Trebor has near him—Sidney—but with whom he seems unwilling to maintain a relationship, in favor of his pursuit the son he lost (or it seems likely, abandoned) in Tahiti. There is also another father/son pairing in the film: Sidney and his two boys, whose mother is the police border agent from the film’s opening. Sidney is in fact introduced taking care of his babies, the attentive, nurturing father who is the very antithesis of Trebor’s disinterest in him. One of the most stunning scenes in L’intrus is of Sidney staring at his youngest whilst on a hike with the family: a shockingly long close-up of the baby’s sunlit face stands out like a shard of light in this nebulous film, a rare moment of real connection. The scene ends with a close-up of Sidney’s watery eyes, which then seem to dart to a wooden cross—part of the recurring Christian undertones in the film—on the side of the road they’re hiking. Before he leaves for his travels, Trebor is constantly accompanied by his two faithful dogs, who could also factor in a logic of unsettled doublings as replacements to both sons.
Trebor’s search for the absent son in Tahiti while ignoring the present one reinforces the irremediable futility in his actions. Mostly alone in the Jura at the beginning of the film, he fulfills a certain archetype of a chosen solitude. His self-exile is a crisis of intimacy: his connections to Sidney, his pharmacist lover, to Dalle’s and Golubeva’s characters all seem either flimsy or dangerously fraught. When Trebor leaves for his transplant, he doesn’t seem to have anyone to say goodbye to. On his way to welcome another’s heart into his body, he is incapable of overcoming a quality of heartlessness through his refusals of mutual sociality. After stopping in a Swiss bank to retrieve money and papers, Trebor meets with Golubev’s Angel of Death, who facilitates the black-market heart transplant. As they speak in Russian, he specifies that he wants “A young heart, not that of an old man or a woman. I’m a man. I want to maintain my character.” The gendered demand for a man’s heart also inscribes itself into his attempts to either maintain or regain a masculine paternal claim on his son. With the comment that he’ll be able to start his life anew, Trebor’s insistence on a young heart also reads like another futile attempt to obtain what he cannot get back: youth, which is to say, time. Saying he wants to “maintain” his character, Trebor reveals an anxiety of around the continuation and wholeness of his sense of self—a threat of being altered by an external intrusion. In the film overall, Denis does in fact to deny the body its integrity: many of the shots of Trebor only capture slivers and fragments of actions, and he is often not quite centered in the frame.
L’intrus is elegiac, suffused a sense of mourning before anything even really happens. Caught in a heartless limbo, Trebor is perhaps already a corpse, and if transplant is a resurrection, it’s an incomplete one. Along with the narrative threads of sacrifice, the father/son dynamic and resurrection, there is a recurring Christ-like iconography in the film, glimpsed through the flowery-thorny crown worn by a young woman early on and later by Sidney. When Trebor asks Dalle’s character to take care of his dogs (which she refuses) his hand briefly hovering over her décolleté is rebuffed with “Do not touch me”—a gendered and chronological reversal of noli me tangere. Dalle, whose radiant laughing face closes the film with an ecstatic scene of her barreling through the snow on a dog sled and who Trebor calls “beautiful otter of the valley” is a source of irrepressible vitality, aligned with nature—the opposite of his status as partially dead.
In his peripatetic self-exile, Trebor is not exactly alone because he is shadowed by Golubeva. We see her after their transaction in a nightmarish interlude in which she and a man are on horseback dragging along another person in the snow behind them. The limp body turns out to be Trebor, who insists he’s already paid for something that goes unnamed but likely refers to the black-market heart. Her response is a chilling “You’ll never pay enough,” before they abandon him in the glacial landscape. This is one of many scenes in the film which externalize Trebor’s unnerving reveries, visually rendering the unmappable spaces of his interiority. The murky divisions between exterior reality and the vagrancies of Trebor’s inner landscapes are a constant source of disquieting overlap in L’intrus. These oneiric territories give Denis’s film a quality of delirium, of a fever that won’t break. Haunting and hunting, Golubeva pursues Trebor like one of the Eumenides, a harbinger of death to whom a debt of life is owed. Later in the film, buoyant from his successful purchase of a boat in Pusan, Trebor drinks with a businessman he meets in a bar and they wander off into the snowy streets. Golubeva appears again behind them, and this time Trebor tells her “Stop hounding me, I have a sick heart” and she replies, “It’s not sick anymore, your heart’s not sick anymore, just empty.”
Denis makes the metaphor material, the abstract fleshy, because Trebor is ultimately heartless in a way that has no medical corrective. After as before the transplant, he is shown as the visual construction of a sick man, frequently shot laying down in a variety of beds from the hotel room in Switzerland to a hospital in Tahiti. He never heals. Trebor is carrying around his own carcass and the transplant—which is not shown in the film—is one of many transactions that cannot “fix” him. Right after making the deal for the heart with Golubeva, Trebor buys himself an expensive watch, a telling choice for a person whose life is running out the clock. The lesson here might be that you can’t buy yourself out of heartlessness any more than you can buy time.
With the origin point of the chilly Jura, this escapist trajectory to the warm tropics is a familiar narrative. In Denis’s film, the framing of places like Tahiti as paradisiacal escapes comes with the reminder that circuitries of tourism, particularly from the global north to the global south, are shadowed by colonialism. The personal journey that Trebor enacts by going to Tahiti is also framed for him as a return to a former home, given whatever time he spent there in his youth and fathered a child. However, one of the first people he speaks with while trying to locate his son tells him plainly “I have nothing against you. But you don’t belong here. Trebor, your son is our son now. He knows nothing about you.” Trebor’s attempts to claim a relationship that is only biologically sustained are rejected. Undergirded by the violent history between France and Tahiti—so-called “French Polynesia”—Trebor’s pretensions on this former “home” are ones to which he has no right, as indicated by the inhospitable reception of even those who seem to recognize him, including his son’s mother. In one scene, he observes a party from afar, clearly uninvited, a colonial intrusion. In one of the film’s airier scenes, the Tahitians alerted to the search for his son enact something of an informal colonial reparations process: holding auditions to find a young man who could pass for his son to make certain the money Trebor has promised as an inheritance at least returns to them in some way.
In the end, the quest for a new heart and a lost son come together, in another dangerous doubling and intrusion on the body’s uncertain borders. Trebor, still in Tahiti, is called to the morgue to identify a corpse. We see a torso with a long cut down the middle, seeming newly stitched—what you might expect would be needed to remove a heart—who looks exactly like his son Sidney. The brief shot is angled in such a way that he is recognizable, but not beyond a doubt. With her typically cryptic visual grammar, Denis suggests that Trebor’s resurrection came at the cost of both sons. The reunion he sought with the Tahitian son is flipped to bring him together with the French one. Running from one son to find another, he is fact chasing a part of himself, enacting a somnambular self-haunting which ends in an eerie sort of cannibalism. If his twinned dogs were symbolic stand-ins for his two sons, this was perversely foreshadowed, again in reverse, in one of his nightmares when a human heart is tossed in the snow and one of the dogs goes to nibble on it.
L’intrus has often been called a poem, or poetic, but if it must be compared to another form I see it more as a rhapsody: not reliant on words, uncontainably expansive, loose, immersive and unpredictable. The film’s music is also crucial to its uneasy textures. The menacing, barbed sonic motif that plays throughout L’intrus is by Stuart Staple of Tindersticks, the British band featured in numerous Denis films. Disjointed and hypnotic, Staple’s original track provides something like the transplant’s heartbeat: a regular rhythmic presence that is also alienating and dissonant. L’intrus is a cryptic, pre-emptive elegy for a man who might already be dead while living. Even in acquiring the heart transplant, there is no resolution as to what Trebor really gained and what had he already lost. L’intrus is constructed around absences and border transgressions: of a physical and metaphorical heart, of sociality and of the assurance of defined territories, both internal and external. For all its unsettling ambiguities, the film is yet not a riddle and Denis is not withholding some secret answer to be found. The crux of L’intrus is that permeability and uncertainty are inescapable, and what we have left are questions—about what we can take with us when go, if there is any way to hide from yourself, whether “self” and the “world” are even distinguishable, where I stop and you begin.

Claire Denis's L'Intrus is screening On Demand at Metrograph.com through April 8th.


Claire DenisMichel SuborJean-Luc Nancy
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