Tearing at the Perceptual Muscle
Claire Denis’s films usually make you feel but they don’t often hurt, and what we want to explore here is the epistemological, affective and finally ethical elements of The Intruder (L’Intrus), before concluding on an interpretation of the film so deliberately provisional we’ll call it subconsciously heuristic: the sort of film our sub-conscious might be putting together whilst trying to make rhyme and reason of the disjunctive events that make up the work.
Now generally Denis’ inventiveness with sound and image and her interest in elliptical storytelling rarely cause pain, and whether it is Vendredi soir or 35 Shots of Rum (two of her warmest pictures) we can find the emotion without straining for it. The Intruder (even more than in Beau travail and White Material) creates a twofold strain. The image structure is such that it’s as if the muscles in our eyes are being tested, and the story she tells is so fragmented that our mind works incredibly hard to try and piece the tale together. Though in a Senses of Cinema interview Denis insists that the film isn’t very intellectual, and that the viewer should go with the experience, this is perhaps disingenuous. When our minds are used to receiving images in a certain way, and to follow a story moving in a certain direction, one can’t readily absorb Denis’ images and the film’s fragmented story without resistance; without at the same time feeling the absence of the anticipated image and the evolution of a narrative. Much of the fascination of The Intruder rests on this tension, and Denis’ film isn’t an experimental work that allows us to go with the flow, but a narrative film that asks us instead to find a way of absorbing its narrative ruptures and image fragmentation. When in an interview about love Laurent Berlant says “in order to make a muscle you have to rip your tendons” (‘On The Risk of a New Relationality’) one might wonder if the analogy works for a certain stretching of the cinematic parameters in both visual and narrative terms. If we merely go with the film as Denis suggests, then are we refusing the ‘burn’ that comes from working the perceptual muscle?
Visually Denis demands this burn by asking us not so much to follow images but to intuit the relationship between them, and to discover perceptually what happens to be in these images. As Denis often moves closely in on parts of a body that cross the screen in scenes that would usually be presented in a medium long shot, but are offered here in close up, so in the next shot she might have a body moving in the other direction equally closely shown, and leave the viewer to feel the brushing effect of the body so close to the camera, rather as an artist might use broad brush strokes and leave us to intuit what that stroke represents.
Whose body have we just seen pass the lens? There is a scene for example where Michel Subor’s central character Louis comes back from a long cycle, and we cut to a woman arriving at a house and beginning to take her clothes off. As she does so a figure crosses the screen close to the lens and blocks the figure in front, and a moment later we realize this man is Louis Trebor, though not because we get to see his face, but instead have to rely on something in the hint of the body, and the hint of a voice, a voice we have heard offer only a couple of lines in the film so far, and where perhaps the grain of the voice has been more evident: in earlier scenes we’ve heard him grunt and groan. As he takes the woman in his arms we have very little to go on that makes it clear who it is. Equally, we have very little that tells us who she is. We are twenty minutes into the film and there have been four other potentially important female characters, including those played by Beatrice Dalle and Katarina Golubeva. Dalle lives in the Swiss border region where Trebor lives, while Golubeva we will later find out, sells him his new heart. When this woman arrives she is initially seen against the light, and while she looks decidedly different from the other women we’ve seen so far, Denis doesn’t make things easy for us when it comes to distinguishing her from the others.
We see this perceptual problem again in a much more pronounced example shortly afterwards, when after making love Trebor’s dogs start barking and he goes to investigate. In partial light and with numerous shots of the tense dogs, we see Trebor coming up to a youth in a hooded jacket and stabbing him from behind. Who is this youth? Might we assume that it is a young woman whom we have seen in a brief moment between the scene we have described and the one where Trebor and his partner make love? Yet the face seen in profile looks definitely male, and the grunt is masculine. Another film might keep this murdered figure in the shadows, but nevertheless have allowed us to assume the person that we had briefly seen in the middle of Trebor and his partner’s assignation would have been the intruder. Here the film makes clear it isn’t, but doesn’t at all make clear who it is. In each instance, in Trebor blocking the screen as he takes his partner in his arms, and in the scene of the intruder’s death, there is menace in the image all the more apparent because of what we might call the epistemological tenuousness of the visuals. Links between the images are made so weak that one might feel threatened by their very weakness as much as by the violence in the images themselves.
Equally if there is menace in the linkages, there is a low level violence to Denis’ editing, making full use of the term to cut, and it is as if Denis and her regular editor Nelly Quettier wanted to utilize the cutting dimension to editing much more than a smoother approach that falls under the word transition. Much of cinema has been about avoiding the cut and allowing for this transition, and any number of cinematic techniques have been developed to allow for such smoothness: from dissolves to graphic matches, from montages to fade-outs. But in this sense Denis is a distant relative of Eisenstein who still believes in the possibility of Kino fist and the collision of images. This is bruising cinema that asks to be felt as much as watched, with the representational violence in the film part of the general phenomenological violence at work. At one moment in The Intruder we cut from a sequence set in the woods, to Trebor buying an expensive watch, to a scene where Golubeva’s character and another figure drag Trebor through the snow. This is certainly confusing on any plot level, but it is also visually exhausting too, as the film cuts between very different light contrasts and plays on information withholding. As we cut from an exterior shot of a hotel in Geneva, to the frozen wastelands, so we move from darkness to light, as if the film were creating deliberate graphic mismatches. Generally, as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson note, in Film Art: An Introduction, film looks often to make smooth matches between shots. “four shots from The Birds may be considered purely as graphic configurations, as patterns of light and dark, line and shape, volumes and depths, movement and stasis – independent of the shot’s relation to the time and space of the story. For instance, Hitchcock has not drastically altered the overall brightness from shot to shot.” This is exactly what Denis consistently does as she insistently changes overall brightness from shot to shot, and which thus adds to the unease the film creates. She looks for cuts over transitions, as if to say whatever violence the film contains, will be more than matched by the formal violence the films offers.
In the scene where Trebor murders the intruder, the violence is done to both character and image: the character killed remains a vague and shadowy figure, and Trebor’s actions are swift and ambiguously motivated. Representation and sensation meet, as the sensational throws into question the representation, makes us wonder what exactly we have seen, though aware that we have been visually traumatized by the film sensuously. But it also confuses us epistemologically as well as phenomenologically: we’re not quite sure why the person is invading Trebor’s home, nor why Trebor kills rather than constrains him, and so even if we to find our way about in the image structure, we still cannot easily pick our way through the narrative development.
The phenomenological aspect the film offers provides cinematic violence on a very physiological level, and Martine Beugnet is right when writing on the film in Film and Philosophy to talk of the “filmed body to the body of film”, with Denis a filmmaker fascinated by the textural possibilities in the film image to allow us to let go of our multiple assumptions about cinema. Here the body of the film and the filmed body dissolve to some degree into each other as the bodies we see are not shown in a representationally categorical manner. But nor are they part of an abstract image as we might find in an experimental work where the rhythmic is of more importance than the representational, evident for example in much of experimental cinema, from Jordan Belson to Stan Brakhage. Here, frequently in Belson and Brakhage, the phenomenological takes precedence over the epistemological. They ask us to see things afresh; rather than make representational connections anew. When Bordwell and Thompson ask us to imagine The Birds independent of the time and space of the story, this is what much experimental cinema allows for. But is it more troublesome still when we have to attend to the contrary form of the image whilst still attempting to find the story within the image. It may remind us of some of Francis Bacon’s comments concerning the abstract and the representational in painting. “I believe that art is recording; I think it is reporting. And I think that in abstract art, as there’s no report, there’s nothing other than the aesthetic of the painter and his few sensations. There’s never any tension in it.” (Interviews with Francis Bacon, ed. David Sylvester) We needn’t agree with Bacon wholesale, but his point is an important one, and is vital to our understanding of the demands Denis’s work makes upon us, for Denis here pushes much further than most filmmakers into the problematic relationship we have with what we are seeing.
When fine representational directors Peckinpah, Penn and Scorsese in the late sixties and seventies wanted to show violence they didn’t only want to show it. They wanted also for it to be experienced, a violence not only done unto the characters but a little to the viewer as well. Robert Phillip Kolker reckoned in The Cinema of Loneliness that graphically violent films of the late sixties worked “aesthetics, prosthetics, cinematic ritual, and cultural consent [and] sutured violence into the very structure of cinema”. Here he was acknowledging the importance of viewer implication – even on the sociological level. As Arthur Penn observed, quoted in James Kendrick’s Film Violence “America is a country of people who act out their views in violent ways…It is the American society, and I would say it is a violent one. So why not make films about it.” It’s as if the filmmakers were saying the viewer had to suffer a little from the violence since they were also implicated in it sociologically.
Denis would be inclined to agree, but less sociologically than primordially: as in Beau travail, White Mischief and especially Trouble Every Day, The Intruder implicates us in a violence that isn’t first and foremost socio-political (no matter the ongoing interest in colonial questions that runs through most of her oeuvre), but ontological in a twofold sense. It asks questions of the nature of violence in being, and the potential assault on our perceptions concerning the cinematic image. It goes back to our point about refusing smooth cuts, and connects to Beugnet’s argument about filmed bodies and the body of film. The bodies in Denis’s films aren’t only cut up representationally, they are also cut up, bruised, smeared and elliptically shown cinematically also. Often a body becomes a smear of colour or an obscure shape, sometimes the cut obliterates the character from the scene, as if we’re left wondering where they have disappeared to. The way Denis films Katarina Golubeva she remains an enigmatic figure in terms of character but also in terms of cinematic presence. She comes and goes in the film, unannounced and curiously omnipresent. Whether it happens to be at the beginning of the film in a cave, later on a horse dragging Trebor through the snow, or showing up in Tahiti where Louis goes looking for his long lost son, the film shows her haunting the film as much as appearing in it, and she exists as half-presence and half-absence, half-real and half-ghostly.
Yet it wouldn’t be useful, one feels, to propose that the film is the reverie of an aging man, with characters coming in and out of his consciousness, an approach that might work better for Denis’ Beau travail, or Alain Resnais’ Providence. Both films at least predicate themselves as enquiries first and foremost into character; The Intruder seems much more interested in presenting itself like a fragmented thriller – closer perhaps to Jim Jarmusch’s Limits of Control, another film about a shadowy figure with a haunted past. Trebor isn’t an especially enigmatic character in his actions, it is more that his actions are presented enigmatically, and so much of the film’s mystery resides in how we are to figure out a past that remains vague and a present that is so partially presented that we cannot always work out the chronology of events categorically, but only guess at the cause and effect.
Nevertheless the notion of cause and effect is consistently being evoked. When Trebor says that he feels he has paid enough after Golubeva’s character drags him through the snow, it might be fair to assume that this is because of the heart that he now has and we may wonder why this woman who sold it to him feels he ought to pay a still higher price than he has already paid. Does it connect to the young man he has murdered at his house, or does it connect to some other indeterminate action? The manner in which he kills the young intruder indicates that Trebor is no stranger to violence as we work on the tenuous relationship with causes and effects. Equally, much later in the film when his Swiss son (Gregoire Colin) looks through some material that talks of Trebor’s other son, does he think he is the son being written about, or does he realize that it is the son that Trebor goes looking for in the south seas? We have partial knowledge but cannot create an entire picture.
As Colin’s character reads through the material we see him wearing a crown of thorns, the very crown, surely, that we see the young woman wearing in that brief insert between Trebor’s lover arriving and the couple making love. Later in the film we see the woman who was wearing the crown of thorns discover a body under the ice that we can assume is that of the young man Trebor murdered. His throat is slit just as the intruder’s was. The killing would have happened in the summer; is this a few months later? The film has the epistemological aspect of the thriller, but the pieces of the puzzle become so scrambled that we cannot with confidence assemble them in the appropriate order. Much of the film’s affective exhaustion comes from the attempt. To go with the flow as Denis proposes, or to turn the film into the imaginings of Trebor, would be to let us off the various hooks on which the film has us wriggling.
If The Intruder is so astonishing a work it resides in the various hooks on which it places us: the epistemological and the affective, as we’ve discussed, and also the ethical. Now of the three it is the ethical that is the hardest to comprehend, because the film presents the ethical problem within the epistemological one. If we knew more clearly who Trebor was and what he has done, it would be easier for us to share his anguish or refuse sympathy for his pain and suffering. Instead what Denis gives us is a liminal ethics, an ethical position that suspends judgement because we are not in possession of the necessary facts. There are moments that taken in isolation do not present Trebor in the best light, but since the film takes place in a constant epistemological shadow, partial light is a dangerous way in which to come to conclusions. If the film is about the heart in all its manifestations (and based on a text by the philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy concerning his own heart transplant), then we might wonder what it means to have an ethical heart, and is this what Trebor has been missing for much of his life? We cannot say because we do not know, and this frustration refuses the arc of redemption that other films like The American or even Le samourai offer in searching out the heart of the assassin. Where in the George Clooney film the hired killer is in danger of losing his deadly instincts as he finds his heart (falling in love with a local girl in the Italian town he hides out in), in Le samourai, Alain Delon sacrifices himself to the woman he allows to live at the beginning of the film. He returns to the scene of the original crime as if to kill her, but instead finally to show his love, or at least his inability any more to function as a cold assassin. There are no bullets in the chamber of the gun as he is shot down by the police who have been waiting for him to return to the club. In each instance we can make certain ethical claims for the characters based on the information we’ve been given. Clooney gains a soul and Delon loses his heart to an unknown woman, as they both become figures of redemption. The emotionally evolutionary arc in The Intruder is so truncated that it isn’t possible to make such redemptive claims for Trebor.
It is as though the film is searching out a Nietzschean ethical beyond, evident in Nietzsche’s claim, that “to recognize untruth as a condition of life: that, to be sure, means to resist customary value –sentiments in a dangerous fashion; and a philosophy which ventures to do so places itself, by that act alone, beyond good and evil.” (Beyond Good and Evil) The Intruder doesn’t expect us to judge cathartically, to have an assured relationship with the truth that allows us to go with the redemptive emotion, as we might expect in an Aristotelian take-on catharsis in The Poetics. This is where “tragedy is a representation of a serious, complete action which has magnitude, in embellished speech, with each of its elements [used] separately in the [various] parts of the play; [represented by people] acting and not by narration; accomplishing by means of pity and terror the catharsis of such emotions.”
When Golubeva’s character tracks Louis down in Korea, he literally turns round and says, “stop hounding me. I’ve got a weak heart.” She replies it is not a weak heart he has, “it’s just empty”. It is the sort of expression of feeling that usually comes with a clear understanding of the motives behind the feeling, but instead the scene is dropped in between Trebor buying a boat, and the son discovering the unsent letters. The scene has instead of the dramatic weight of a categorical moment, the ethical ambiguity of us wondering what exactly she means. This suspension of judgement leads to a very different ethical system from the cathartic and the redemptive, but it is an ethical system nevertheless. It demands an ethical vigilance, as one must work with countless variables to find a position of indeterminate ethical confidence. Films often train us in moral assertiveness; but is this not often an immature approach to ethics, a tautological system of belief that even if it doesn’t create obvious characterization, nevertheless creates certitude of event.?If in great films like Five Easy Pieces and The Last Detail we are given Jack Nicholson characters who behave in frequently unsympathetic ways and that call into question our ready identification with such a figure, then nevertheless the events are presented with enough cause and effectual certitude for us to withdraw judgement rather than suspend it. He acts badly when he sleeps with his brother’s wife and when he attacks his sister’s lover in Five Easy Pieces, and also when he starts a fight in the toilet in The Last Detail. One recoils from his actions and withdraws sympathy. In The Intruder can we do the same with Trebor? When he murders the young man can we say we withdraw sympathy of simply suspend it: do we not wait until we have more information to know whether his action is ethically justifiable or not?
Equally, when Golubeva’s character accuses Trebor of an empty heart, we are given too little context to judge accordingly. True, there have been scenes like the one much earlier where he meets his son on the street in the town centre in Switzerland, and this is the first time he has seen the young baby, a baby named after him, but he is also the one who notices his son’s car and asks him to get in touch more often. After he leaves, his son refers to him as a lunatic. There is conflict at work here, with the son presumably respecting his father enough to name his son after Louis, but equally capable of taking his money and immediately afterwards referring to him as nuts. And there is a similar moment with Beatrice Dalle’s character when Trebor asks her to look after his dogs when he is away. She responds like a woman who has been treated harshly or insensitively by this man, but we have not been given the context for her response, and so it remains ethically in limbo.
Here the ethical is contained, as we’ve suggested, by the limits of the epistemological, and it is perhaps in the affective where the two are relatively resolved. What do we mean by this? Often these three categories need not be presented in the complicated manner they are here. Frequently, the ethical and the epistemological come together to reveal feeling, and they allow a certain emotional response. When at the end of a film a villain is righteously dispatched in a fight with the hero, the epistemological (the narrative unravelling) meets the ethical (the moral necessity of the deed being punished), and the viewer gets to have the feeling of righteousness as the villain is taken out. What happens in The Intruder, however, is that we are not quite sure who is the villain (is it Golubeva’s figure or Trebor for example?), and so no such confrontation is possible. We do know however that there are villainous acts, or rather acts of atrocity. Whether it is Trebor killing the intruder, the young woman carried dead out into the snow after presumably being killed, Colin’s body on a slab in a morgue – these are all events to which one can have a strong affective response. But they’re like Lewis Carroll’s smile without a cat: they are acts without a perpetrator or without a context, or both. One feels the shock of certain images (like the heart lying in the snow, the stitched up body of Colin) cannot offer the surrounding context that would allow for moral or epistemological certitude.
In Nancy’s essay he offers a fascinating image: “Some believe that organ rejection consists, literally, in vomiting up the heart and spitting it out; after all, the word rejection seems chosen to convey this.” Earlier he talks of the heart as a stranger, an intruder. “It was becoming a stranger to me, intruding through its defection. Almost through rejection, if not dejection. I had this heart somewhere near my lips or my tongue, like an improper food.” What the film takes from the essay is a notion of radical disembodiment and finds a film form to convey this otherness. It has always been an interest of Denis’: foreign bodies within the body. In Trouble Every Day the main characters are taken over by a disease that turns them into lustful murderers; in Beau travail, the central character is a legionnaire invaded by the foreign body of a new recruit who makes him impossibly jealous, and in Chocolat a black servant creates inarticulate frustration in a colonial wife. In The Intruder there are numerous intruders: his lover seems to turn up unannounced in the scene quoted above, the woman with a crown on her head takes a bath in Trebor’s house when he is away, Trebor arrives unannounced in Tahiti, bumps into his son on the streets of the Swiss town as if unwelcome, and likewise turns up at Dalle’s door looking as if he is equally doorstopping. Trebor views Golubeva as so intrusive a presence that, when he sees her in Asia, he tells her to leave him alone, and so on.
This is intrusion not as philosophical disquisition, but dramatic supposition, with Denis using intrusiveness in all its manifestations to create a thematic space that asks us questions about what intruding might be (Colin’s wife works at border control, and there are a number of scenes with people crossing over into Switzerland), but above all to generate a suspenseful inscrutability. Why is Golubeva following Trebor around the world, why does the murdered intruder come to Trebor’s house, what is the young woman with the crown on her head doing roaming the country side and seeking refuge in Trebor’s home in his absence? We cannot easily find the answers to these questions, but we can set to work offering useful hypotheses, however unthought through or simply felt.
In conclusion we could do worse than wonder what one of these hypotheses would look like, and we offer a provisional answer not to decipher the film, but to hint at its hermeneutic complexity. It is in the best sense of the term an heuristic film, a film looking to allow for provisional readings. Let us propose, then, that Trebor is an international assassin who has lived in various parts of the world, including Russia, since he speaks the language and his bank accounts reveal his time there. He has perhaps retired from the job and wants to live quietly in Switzerland, maybe to make contact with his son who lives there, maybe because he sees it as a quiet place in which to reside, to even hide out. But his heart gives way and he needs a strong young one, as he says, and makes contact perhaps with those with whom he had dealings in the past. A young man one evening comes to his door, perhaps the brother of Golubeva, and he wants not to intrude but to help. Trebor kills him, perhaps out of fear; perhaps out of opportunism (is it his heart he takes)? Golubeva wants revenge, and initially might find it by threatening him as she and another person drag him through the snow. Trebor leaves the country, and while away, Golubeva seeks revenge by getting others to murder the young woman who happens to be staying in Trebor’s house, but whom the killers might take to be his lover, or a daughter. Her heart is shown lying on the snow, as if the object of a revenge killing. But Golubeva either realizing she has made an error, or seeking further revenge, follows him to Asia and then on to Tahiti, and it is there, it seems, where she kills his son, the son who has followed him maybe after reading letters that almost certainly pertains to his long lost child, but that Colin perhaps reads as about him. The film more or less concludes with the horrible irony of Trebor, with a new heart that makes him more sentimental and querying, searching out one son as he must bury the other one, with his new heart coming at a price far greater than any monetary cost.
One would not claim this as the chronological story of The Intruder, and maybe there are certain assumptions one has made that would be logically inconsistent without further explanation. But let us say no more than that this is the story one’s sub-conscious might seek out: what one determinedly searches for in the play of subconscious intuitions and logical connections; patterns to stave off the indeterminacy of the information offered. Yet of course it is the very indeterminacy that is central to making The Intruder such a great film. However, if we simply go with the film as Denis disingenuously suggests, we allow ourselves to sink into a viewing experience that is surely closer to an arduous gym work-out for the mind, than a dip in the effervescently relaxing world of the Jacuzzi we usually get from most films.