This is a film that challenges patience and understanding in ways I can only describe as thrilling. To watch Claire Denis's The Intruder is to be engulfed in rapturous images more haunting than easily understood. Which is to say that Denis imbues every frame with a wealth of meaning, but what that meaning is exactly might not be apparent on a first viewing (or second, or third). It's a movie that asks to be felt rather than comprehended, and which communicates on an emotional level instead of engaging its viewers with a linear narrative.
This could be said about many of Denis's films; both her debut, Chocolat, and her defining work, Beau Travail, were loosely told and often felt like dreams (and both consisted of flashbacks that never seemed like the Hollywood definition of a flashback). But it's The Intruder that truly breaks free of the binds of a traditional narrative — that which hampers prior works like Trouble Every Day, which is bogged down by its tedious plot, and I Can't Sleep, which is more straightforward than her later work. Here, Denis seems to have arrived at the endpoint of an evolutionary cycle, where plot is less and less important and stories can be told through related but ambiguous sequences that resonate in their thematic similarity.
Denis has described reading the source material for her film — a 30-page novella by Jean-Luc Nancy — as a "physical" experience. As such, though her film adaptation is clearly more expansive than the literature (it runs for just over two hours), at least the director has effectively translated this same "physical" quality to the screen. Similarly, Denis describes her reaction to the novella as being "personal," and the same can certainly be said of my own reaction to her film, and what I took away from it. What's more, both works are meant to intrude on those who let them. In the film, "the intruder" is everywhere, and anyone who does not belong, or who penetrates the life of another. For instance, as you read this review, I am the intruder.
A poetic incantation, spoken by a specter hiding in the shadows of the woods, begins the film: "Your worst enemies / are hiding inside / in the shadow / in your heart." In this film, "the heart" means a lot. Louis Trebor (Michel Subor) is a "man with no heart" (as described by Denis), who suffers from pain in his chest and eventually learns that he needs a heart transplant. This 'inciting incident' (though such screenplay cliches are superfluous here) sets him on a path of redemption and reconciliation, where he must leave his life of solitude in the woods (on the French-Swiss border), find a way to spiritually reconnect with his two sons — one lives close by, the other far away — and quell the demons of his consciousness. Demons that manifest themselves in the form of one entity, a ghostly Russian woman (Katia Golubeva), the same who whispered the poetry from the film's opening sequence. She is an "intruder"; she haunts Trebor on his journey through lands both strange and familiar, harsh and cold, inviting and tropical.
I've seen the film four times, and each time I come back to it I make the same mistake. I try to make sense of the story, of the relationships between the characters; which is to miss the point. The only story I've found, aside from the baseline — a man in search of a heart — is that which Denis communicates through the stringing together of like-minded sequences. For instance, towards the beginning of the the film, a female cop is seen performing routines with a trained dog (an animal that appears in this film quite a bit), suggesting a position of authority and control. In the next sequence, she heads home to her husband, who seduces her quietly in the kitchen; she is submissive now, no longer in control of her environment. Denis then cuts away to shots of shadowy, faceless figures, bounding through the forest, hopping over a fence, and intruding on both Trebor's property and the tranquility of the forest — as well as the moment itself. The way in which Denis subtlety likens a sexual intrusion to that of the intruders in the woods demonstrates this director's thought process. Even if the two sequences exist separately from each other, on a narrative level, they are linked in that the action of both scenes is the same: an intrusion. The filmmaker further entwines the two disparate occurrences by having the husband weave a forested sexual fantasy for his titillated wife, creating a fluid transition from one scene to the next.
This scene, and others like it, suggests the power of imagery conjured by the imagination, a running theme here that is explored again later in the film, when Trebor imagines he's being dragged through the snow by a horse-drawn sleigh. Perhaps this is symbolic of the guilt Trebor feels (he kills a young man, out of impulse, towards the beginning of the film), or maybe he just dreads the idea of being dragged back to the snowy landscape he's left behind. Or, maybe, the sequence isn't a dream at all. The fact that Denis opens her cinema up to so many interpretations should be considered a strength, not a flaw, as ambiguity must be valued in this age of modern cinema, where so many filmmakers spoon-feed us. In contrast, Denis lets her scenes speak for themselves, without exposition, which could be seen as something of an auteurist trademark. Ditto her decision to tie characters to their surroundings, making them seem unfamiliar if they're spotted elsewhere. This serves to emphasize a sense of alienation from the world outside one's own environment, and helps to establish Trebor and his ghostly Russian companion as the only roving beings in a world plagued by stillness. This could be why I've read in many places that those who watch The Intruder tend to feel as if they are on some kind of journey themselves, or that they've "lived something," as Stephanie Zacharek of Salon astutely observed.
Even those who argue that the film lacks structure or a sense of pacing don't have a leg to stand on. First of all, that is the point; to rebel against traditional narrative and to tell a story that cares more about making its feelings resonate then following a plot from point A to point B. Regardless, I think the movie has impeccable structure, as becomes apparent when it enters into its third act — set in the tropical landscape of Tahiti — where Trebor finally arrives, in search of his long-lost son. The movie follows the linear timeline of a dying heart. The pace suggests this, as it slows considerably in the final act, leading to the inevitable. And the final sequence — a return to the snow-covered landscape Trebor left behind — suggests something profound and cyclical. In addition, a final glimpse at the Queen of the Northern Hemisphere (as the credits refer to Denis regular Beatrice Dalle's abrasive character) hints at the fact that redemption may be unattainable for Trebor's sinful soul.
The result of all this is a film that feels at once alien and familiar. There's a certain disassociation I feel when I watch The Intruder, but the impression it leaves tends to linger for a long time after each viewing. Which, in my view, is the point; Denis intrudes, as is her intention, and the effects of her intrusion are long-lasting. Understanding it all doesn't really come into the equation.