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.