French filmmaker Claire Denis has acknowledged that a host of sources inspired L’intrus|The Intruder (January 25–February 9 at the MFA), the tale of a sickly, reclusive Frenchman, Louis Trebor (Michel Subor), who after paying hard cash and buying a new heart sails for the South Seas, vaguely in search of a lost illegitimate son. Denis credits in the development of her movie, earlier South Seas voyages in search of life’s meaning by Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin, and even Marlon Brando. And cinematographer Agnès Godard’s truly divine photography of the lush yet always foreboding sea? It’s a homage to the eerie ocean world of F.W. Murnau’s 1931 classic of doom, Tabu. Finally, Denis has explained that L’intrus sprang to life as a fictional variant of French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s true-life memoir of a heart transplant: afterward, he felt an alien presence pounding in his chest!
There are other key influences that go back to Denis’s apprentice days. Before her 1988 first feature, Chocolat, she worked as an assistant director for two filmmakers whom she still admires, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. From Wenders she gets her melancholy, monosyllabic protagonist 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 settings. Much of L’intrus — 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 L’intrus 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 a worthy film make? Watched for a coherent narrative, L’intrus will frustrate even devotees of Denis, those who consider her 1999 Beau travail one of the great works of recent cinema. The 140 minutes provide, in scattered bits, about 10 minutes of old-fashioned story. Louis Trebor lives in the French countryside with his two dogs, rarely sees his adult son (Grégoire Colin), has a pharmacist mistress but flirts with a sexy dog breeder (Béatrice Dalle). 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 Louis’s search? Not really. He’s cold and unsympathetic — which is what Denis intended. 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’s 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 Fatih Akin’s Gegen die Wand|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!