Thinking about how I have personally tried to understand cinema and an ‘avant-garde,’ as someone who came to these ideas as a teenager with no access to a place like The Anthology Film Archives or The MoMA, I realized that I tend to divide films into one of two categories. The first is the use of radical or post-modern technical or narrative techniques to fulfill an artist’s vision for telling a story (either fiction or non-fiction), and the second I see as a rejection of formal storytelling altogether in the name of abstraction, non-narrative forms, feeling and/or creative necessity. As a movement, I tend to think of the American avant-garde of the second half of the 20th century as the latter, where artists like Brakhage, Deren, Mekas et al. reject the premise that cinema must tell stories in order to place film directly in the service of a specific artistic vision. I tend to prefer films in the former category, films that use radical, innovative techniques to tell a story. In the past few years, as more and more filmmakers employ innovative techniques (and yesterday’s innovations and abstractions are co-opted by today's mainstream and commercial filmmakers), the lines between avant-garde filmmaking and traditional moviemaking have blurred. However, there are artists whose singular vision and commitment to innovating traditional narrative forms stands head and shoulders above the simple incorporation of techniques. At the top of that list, in my own thinking, is the French filmmaker Claire Denis.
Director Claire Denis
A small video store down the street from my parent’s house carries a copy of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas on VHS. I rent the tape using my parent’s account. Clearly, the ‘R’ rating has no impact on the clerk. I am happy about that.
The film’s climax, when Travis talks to Jane through the glass of a peep show window, moves me to tears. Silence and massive landscapes lead to an unfulfilled intimacy.
I am in Florida. Claire Denis' L’Intrus opens in the USA. The film grosses $40,600 in domestic box office.
I am 33.
The Toronto Film Festival is in full swing. Looking at the schedule of press and industry screenings, I instantly settle on a late morning screening of Claire Denis’ latest film, L’Intrus. The room is nearly empty, less an indication of the film’s pre-screening ‘buzz’ than a reflection of the purpose of press and industry screenings; The idea of selling a Claire Denis film to audiences in North America is a daunting one and the chances that L’Intrus will be as commercially viable as a film like Friday Night, Denis’ romantic look at the urban impediments to making a connection with others, are slight. Even if it were so, Friday Night had only generated a minor piece of domestic box office in the USA.
What does a near-empty industry screening of the latest film by one of the most original filmmakers working today at the largest North American film festival say about the state of cinema? Earlier in the week, Lukas Moodysson’s brutal anti-pornography diatribe A Hole In My Heart was stuffed full, and a famously angry confrontation between late-arriving buyers and festival staff ensued as the film began and several folks were turned away. Of course, Moodysson’s film carried word of mouth based on its subject matter (pornography), and knowing that sex sells, as people got up and walked out of Moodysson’s film, one after another, I couldn’t help but think that his point was doubly made. Sex sells? Sell this.
L’Intrus begins and I am riveted, baffled, and blown away. Brand new 35mm print, huge multiplex screen, beautiful sound system throwing the electronic score all over the room. The best of all possible worlds. The movie burns itself into my brain.
Back into daylight, I run into a colleague.
“How was it?” he asks.
“Impenetrable,” I say. “I loved it.”
Louis Trebor (Michael Subor) In Claire Denis' L'Intrus.
My first experience with the idea of an ‘avant-garde’ took place while visiting the home of a friend. Like most 12-year-old kids raised in the Midwest, my life to that point had been filled by the tastes of my parents who, to this day, take tremendous satisfaction from the safe routines of lives they have constructed for themselves; Nothing too dangerous, nothing too noisy, why rock the boat? To put things into focus for you, in the 1960’s, as students and young people across America were rising up against the traditions and values of their parents (which they would grow to reinforce with a vengeance in the 1980’s and beyond), my parents were on opposite ends of a campaign for Homecoming Queen at the small, seemingly apolitical university they attended. Despite encouraging an education in the arts, life was pretty much what you would expect; Just the popular, please.
Two forces, neither of them cinematic, converged in my own life at just about the same time, both of which put me in touch with the idea that art was not the province of old, dead men but a living, breathing activity propelled and renewed by the emergence of new ideas and new artists responding to their predecessors. The first of these was the arrival of American Hardcore/Alternative music, which showed creativity as an act of rebellious youth, a rejection of safe popular values in favor of propulsive individual expression. Here were young people, most only a few years older than me, who were tearing popular music to shreds in the hopes that a new, informed political consciousness would arise; Art shouldn’t have answers, but should ask questions. The questions raised by the hardcore/alternative music of the time struck a deep chord in me.
But that was nothing new.
The second force was a single musical recording from 1965 which, as a young musician, scared me to death and thrills me to this very day; John Coltrane’s Live In Paris, Volume 2. I had already heard Coltrane’s studio recordings, superlative records that, as a young person learning the saxophone, were both intimidating and awe-inspiring. I hadn’t heard anything like the speed and complexity of his playing before. Here was an artist taking a simple song like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favorite Things and rendering it all but unrecognizable by stripping the song to its skeletal core and then showering it with ideas so big that something new was borne of it. My friend’s father had introduced me to Coltrane (he was not an artist you would find in my parent’s record collection) and it was at his house that I first opened my copy of Live In Paris, Volume 2 and gave it a spin.
On the record, Coltrane takes his own powerhouse song Impressions and soars into the stratosphere of abstraction. I had never heard anything so difficult, so challenging. To my ears, the uproarious noise coming form the improvisation wasn’t unlike the punk rock records I was listening to at the time which, by comparison, seemed more like melodic pop songs buried in volume. It was the seeming chaos of the Coltrane recording, the abstraction within the confines of form, was what was most thrilling to me.
“What is this?” I asked.
“This is avant-garde. Good stuff,” I was told.
I listened to that record hundreds of times and after a while, I began to see that what I had mistaken for chaotic abstraction was, in fact, a series of choices and ideas, responses and rejections of what had come before. There was structure, logic, listening, call and response. Big ideas, purposeful and challenging.
August 2, 2006.
I am 35.
”Your worst enemies are hiding inside, in the shadows, in your heart.”
I watch L’Intrus again. Impenetrable had been the wrong word, and I have always regretted using it. Denis’ film has haunted me since I that first screening almost two years ago. Watching it again, I am instantly struck by things that my sloppy viewership had only intuited before.
L’Intrus is in progress. Denis’ intention becomes clear to me now. I had used the wrong word. Impenetrable? I regret that.
Sidney (Gregoire Colin) carries his child through a field. A new father looking for the reflection of himself in his newborn’s face. He sees a cross and a hilltop. Could he make that sacrifice? How could God? Is there a cinematographer in the universe whose work I would rather watch than Agnes Godard?
Gypsies sneak across the border. Antoinette (the amazing Florence Loiret, who I first saw in Erick Zonca’s Seule), searches for them and notices the car of Louis Trebor (Michael Subor), her father in law, driving toward Switzerland.
Trebor takes money from a safe deposit box in a Swiss bank and mails a letter to lawyers in Tahiti. Money, heart, son.
In a hotel, money is given to a Russian woman.
“I want a young heart, not an old heart or a woman’s heart. I am a man, I want to keep my character,” he says.
Hunters in a field fail to discover a decomposing body. The Wild Woman (Lolita Chammah), a guardian of the forest (and the dream of a girl Trebor spied while cycling), watches them pass. Trebor’s dogs nibble at the carcass.
Trebor buys a beautiful new watch, a way to track the remaining moments of his own life. He heads back to his hotel to await news of his fate.
Trebor is dragged across a wintry Russian landscape by two young people on horseback. Spare music throbs, its electricity no match for the thrilling sound of the horses thundering against the snow-covered ground. Left for dead in a snow drift.
“I already paid,” he says.
“No. You’ll never pay enough,” he is told.
Trebor checks his brand new watch, and sets it aside so that he can inspect his hunting knife, which he used earlier in the murder of a young man near his home. The Intruder?
The Wild Woman discovers the body in the field, buried under ice. She breaks into Trebor’s abandoned home and bathes as Trebor’s dogs circle her. An Intruder.
A body, wrapped in a blood soaked cloth, is dumped in a field. A heart lies in the snow. It is the Wild Woman. Trebor’s dogs eat the heart.
(In my head:“Not a girl’s heart…”)
Somewhere in Asia.
Subor awakens from heart-transplant surgery. A huge scar is emblazoned down the middle of his chest.
This central sequence, the demarcation between the first and second halves of the film, is the key to Denis’ strategy in L’Intrus and I think it is important not only in understanding the formal structure of the film itself, but to knowing Denis’ genius as a filmmaker. Thematically, Denis’ is constantly drawing parallels in the film, which she underscores by flooding the narratives with troikas of rhyming characters; The sons (and grandson), the unknowable women of the woods (Russian/Wild Woman/and of course Beatrice Dalle’s ‘Queen of the Northern Hemisphere.’) Three bodies and three possible hearts; the Intruder, the Wild Woman’s dream, the actual “donor,” sacrificed by blackmarketeers for Trebor’s money, so that Trebor may live. Dreams and realities, all built around the central idea of regret, guilt, and an impending death.
Denis’ has chosen an elliptical, oblique structure for L’Intrus that speaks directly to, if you’ll pardon the pun, the heart of Trebor’s feeling and experience. The story lives inside Trebor’s mind and body and Denis keeps us in direct contact with his thoughts and point of view throughout the entirety of the film. The only breaks we receive are when Sidney, a new father looking to reestablish contact with Trebor (his own father), begins to unravel the mystery of Trebor’s disappearance. Once in Tahiti, the film dives headlong into the story of Trebor’s search for the son he abandoned on the island, to whom he has bequeathed his estate (as was made clear by the letter sent from the Swiss bank).
Hovering above the story are the film’s gorgeous visuals, where dreams and memories steal the show.
These are breathtaking sequences; Trebor being dragged by horses, his memory of arriving on Tahiti seemingly shot on Kodachrome (fucking gorgeous) and the rhyming repeat of two gun shots in the jungle (echoing the hunters back in France), Dalle charging on dogsled through the frozen landscape in the film’s final shot. It is all so beautiful that on first viewing I found myself lost between resignation to the images and puzzlement as to what was real and what was imagined. This time, it all not only made sense, but blew me away.
Is there is something wired in our brains that dislikes complexity, the hard work required by abstraction? Development of a ‘taste’ for complexity seems biological, a part of growing up. The older I get, the less I trust simplicity. The first time I ever played a discordant music for my two-year-old niece, she lost her shit. Throw on a monotonous nursery rhyme and she would swoon. If (and hopefully when) I become a father, will I be able to share complex ideas with my child?
Trebor’s son, Toni (Jean-Marc Teriipaia), reveals himself to our dying hero.
Trebor finds his “donor.” It is his son, Sidney, who has a long red scar down his chest. The search for a lost son meets the tragic end to the search for a lost father. He carries the coffin to be shipped back home. The body sails on a black sea, heading to a black afterlife. Trebor and Toni join the body. Finally, all three together.
A team of dogs pulls the Queen of the Western Hemisphere through the snow. A final dream. Home. Memory. Fin.