More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2019 (17 to 24 October)
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Watching L'intrus (2004), one immediately has to ask who this intruder is¹ – in the opening titles, the word itself is introduced with visuals that connote suspicious questioning [personne qui s'introduit dans un lieu ou un groupe sans y être invitée] :
Although there are other candidates², one is a male who is inexplicably seen killed at night and, in daylight, his body concealed, whereas another – who, as the film proceeds, certainly seems to intrude – is the perpetrator of these actions. On this question and many others, the film's largely non-directive approach chooses not to give an answer. However, this style of presentation does not wholly leave viewers to make what they will of that which director Claire Denis and her co-writer Jean-Pol Fargeau do show, because they still, at least, follow such conventions as signalling that the preceding sequence has been a dream³ by cutting to the sleeper (Louis), awakening in bed.
It is hardly uniquely true fact of Claire Denis' film that it leaves viewers to piece together what even the events consist in, let alone what they might signify, since a fairly arbitrary list of relevant film-references (i.e. a non-exhaustive one) would have to include the following (in order of date of release) :
* Mirror (1975) ~ Andrei Tarkovsky
* Eraserhead (1977) ~ David Lynch
* The Lost Highway (1997) ~ Lynch
* Mother and Son (1997) ~ Aleksandr Sokurov
* Code unknown (Code inconnu : Récit incomplet de divers voyages) (2000) ~ Michael Haneke
After the opening scenes², which serve to ‘leap-frog’ us to him, the film broadly follows Louis (played by Michel Subor), but, despite our seeing him engaged in his semi-naturist activities, and with his seeming delight in the company of his huskies, we cannot easily understand his living as he does, let alone why or for how long he has done so. In the film’s terms, he just is – depicted as he is, and how he is.
However, just as Denis does not always expressly delineate moving the location to another territory (or where it is – there are no captions, which in conventional films tell audiences ‘where they are’), so she does not leave more than partial clues as to matters such as : the passing of time (again, mainstream films often employ captions with the date and / or time) ; why we might be in that place now ; and what motivates the actions that we see. (As with the mise-en-scène, Louis Trebor is depicted in situ, and we derive any context in an incidental way.) Other continents are simply seen to be where Louis has travelled to, without the narrative contrivance of showing airport departure-boards as other films usually would (or planes taking off or landing), because that is all implicit in the change in what is in front of the camera.
Unlike in the case of Mirror, where Tarkovsky also has the same actor play mother and daughter, and so we must therefore concentrate to discern past from present, memory from scenes that have been imagined, Claire Denis may appear not to deviate significantly from time being seen in a linear way. Instead, in this film, time is rooted in the places to which Louis journeys - as a force from which the past emanates ? Yet, as part of Denis’ directorial telescoping of time, Louis has an operation without our knowing quite how, when or where, quite as if those things both do not matter and will not be allowed to matter to us – because we cannot ‘get behind’ what her fellow screenwriter and she choose to give to us in the artefact that is the film. Even so, Louis’ evident ill-health and a visit to the bank link us to his being away, and to the procedure, before all of which we had hardly heard speak.
We learn his desire for the future, and – in a scene with more dialogue than at any other point – of a ludicrous attempt to satisfy it, a moment that is not only a bizarre 'beauty parade', just between those holding it and taking part and us, but also a connection with the substitutionary universe of the early work of Yorgos Lanthimos. Louis seems satisfied with what happens, and we may accordingly surmise that he cannot be affected by what he does not know – we cannot escape the symbolism that we have seen the scars that the operation gave him now mirrored.
The film has a poetry to it, and there is a release of vibrant colour when a ship is launched, but there is nothing intrinsic to the film that still needs to be found : the act of creation is – engaging with it – in and through us. What would it be to search for greater meaning than this ? (Self-referentially, regardless of what Louis most wants, he almost certainly does not get what he decided that he was seeking.)
What Denis hints at is that, if it is seen as an observer, all life has a quality of mysteriousness – and therefore, perhaps, she suggests the fragmentary nature (or even obliquity) of what, even when we are actual participants, we understand of what is taking place ?
¹ With its title, a film can have us on edge, waiting to see how much (or little) relevance it will have to our interpreting what we will see / have seen : it may be pinned on when, at some telling moment, a character names the word or phrase (as, sensationally, in the closing line of Chinatown (1974)).
In Frances Ha (2012), it proves to be a quirky note that is sounded right at the end (in a visual joke) ; in Lady Bird (2017), it is what Christine insists on calling herself at high school (even if we might not unhelpfully delve into why, and think of the children’s rhyme) ; whereas Aquarius (2016) is named for the featured apartment-block, and its water symbolism.
² Is, for example, 'the intruder' the man whose vehicle has been waved through, on the other side, but who (indicated to stop once he has crossed) a much-congratulated sniffer-dog finds to have something hidden in a container of wipes ? (This man seems to play no further part in the film, but, later, other people are seen disappearing off, into the undergrowth and away from the headlights, during a drive along dark roads at night - are they intruders, too ?)
The customs officer who fêtes the sniffer-dog also proves not to be the film's concern, but is our link to what follows, after a slightly fetishistic sex-scene with her partner that centres on her uniform – might we not equally feel, at that moment, that it is we who intrude ?
³ Or, at the film’s outset (and after a medium shot of a border control), the national flags that we are shown establish that we are on the Swiss side.
Query : in the case of the last shot that we last see, which is followed by the closing credits (and so which cannot be announced in this way), can we even meaningfully ask whether is it 'real', or a dream / fantasy ?
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)