Tomorrow night at 6 PM, the Gene Siskel Film Center concludes its monthlong Claire Denis retrospective with the French director’s most challenging work, The Intruder (2004). I consider it one of the most significant films released in my lifetime—it advances a visual language so unique that it challenges some of our most basic assumptions of how movies work. In brief, it concerns a mysterious man in his 60s (Michel Subor) who leaves the remote woods where he resides in order to get a heart transplant in Switzerland and wrap up some unfinished business in the former French colony of Tahiti. Yet Denis frequently intercuts the story with dreams, rhapsodic impressions of nature and urban environments, and bits of narrative concerning people whose relationship to Subor remains unclear to the end.
To get a better handle on how the movie works, I engaged in an e-mail correspondence with local artists Melika Bass (whose film work I discussed here) and Lori Felker (whom I interviewed last year about experimental filmmaker Robert Nelson). We also discussed the evolution of Denis’s art in her most recent film, Bastards, which screens again at the Siskel tonight at 8 PM. Inspired by true-crime stories and William Faulkner’s novel Sanctuary, Bastards concerns another lone-wolf protagonist (Vincent Lindon) who returns to Paris after his brother-in-law commits suicide and he discovers that his niece has been involved in a sex racket for rich businessmen. The movie is, in some regards, Denis’s most genre-bound work to date, but Felker and Bass were quick to point out how it reflects the director’s elusive and meditative aesthetic. If you want to catch some of their work, Bass’s new exhibit at Rogers Park gallery Iceberg opens this weekend (she’ll take part in a discussion about it on Saturday at 1 PM), and Felker (currently a visiting professor of art and art history at UIC) will open her next exhibit in 2014 as part of her HATCH Projects Artist Residency through the Chicago Artists Coalition.
Ben Sachs: One thing I love about The Intruder is how it seems to occupy a middle ground between narrative and nonnarrative filmmaking. Watching it, you always want to know what will happen next, but you’re never quite sure what’s happening. Also, Denis is doing so many interesting things with form that it’s hard to focus exclusively on plot. Do you see connections to any avant-garde films or filmmakers in Claire Denis’s work?
Lori Felker: I feel that Denis is on the other side of narrative rather than in between the two categories. She takes the basic elements of narrative cinema (series of events, cause and effect), then takes out lots of the familiar entry and exit points. It occurred to me while rewatching Beau Travail and while watching The Intruder that many of her shots start in the middle of an action and end before there’s full closure. Narrative/story/life is found in the moment of being, touching, acting—not in the explanation. I happen to be teaching a chapter from Raul Ruiz’s Poetics of Cinema 2 this week. With Denis in mind, this quote jumped out at me: “Suggestion is, of course, the collection of gestures and attitudes that lead us from concealment to revelation. Truth, then, might reside in the process, in the passage from one state to the other.”
Melika Bass: I think Denis is more interested in people than story—in creating subjective experiences through cinema. This might seem to link her to experimental film, because you could call her filmmaking intuitive. . . . She’s said in interviews that she’s interested in movement, color, sound, and how different kinds of humans live. This could describe [the perspective of] many “experimental” filmmakers, but I think Denis’s methods, subjects, scale, budget, and audience are more in line with the cinephile/art house world.
I see a bit of Chris Marker in her films’ fragmentation, repetition, and fantasies of history. I also see a lot of William Faulkner: the drifting, shifting point of view; the use of landscape as a kind of correlative to internal states; and the swirling together of race, sex, and politics.
I’ve seen The Intruder several times now, and I still can’t quite pinpoint what it’s doing. How would you summarize its tone, themes, and impact?
Felker: This is like a “what’s the meaning of life?” question. The film is so open that it can mean different things depending on the viewer’s position. The lack of explanation and drift between reality and dreams paint a picture that leaves room for us to complete it. Denis suggests that these grand plots [which involve border patrol, international finance, colonialism] are ultimately controlled by human beings, who are erratic and irrational creatures. We are animals, but we are not dogs. We’re next to dogs—lots of dogs.
Bass: It’s hard to separate the tension we experience in viewing such an unpredictable film from what we believe the characters may be thinking or feeling. The emotion of the film is primarily inside the viewer. We assume the characters experience fear and paranoia in part because of the dread conjured by the fragmented story, but most of performances are actually quite uninflected. It’s this projecting onto the characters, and the editing that creates the emotional power of the film.
One major theme is humiliation—many interactions in the film seem based on some form of it. There’s so much power play—over property, money, children, perceived threats, even over the main character’s heart. Exile is a theme too, as it is in all Denis’s films.
What are some of your favorite images and why? How do they inform your experience of The Intruder on the whole?
Bass: The moments that stay with me are close-ups of body parts, and the cuts from faces to images of landscapes. Denis edits certain images together so that they can read as opalescent thoughts. This is one if the most exciting things about her, the way she suggests a character’s interior life by implying their thoughts or sentiments with the editing of image and sound. There’s a sense of wondering and wandering in these films that’s so transporting, it almost gets into your blood.
Felker: I love the dreams and the way we sink into them. The surreal images arise naturally from reality, reminding us that even if we’re cool on the outside we can be tortured inside. . . . Thinking about images in The Intruder leads directly to thinking about the editing. Some of the juxtapositions are so powerful—like the cut from a bloody hand moving up in one shot to a clean hand touching a face in the next.
Weirdly, you remind me of Michael Bay’s mantra, “shoot for the edit,” which could be the guiding principle of much contemporary action cinema. Based on your experiences of making movies, how do you imagine she creates these juxtapositions? Do you ever feel like her concept of montage takes precedent over what she’s actually showing us?
Felker: I think the Michael Bay connection is coincidental, mainly because the idea of “shoot for the edit” is really common. When you write your script and storyboard, you’re already imagining how things will fit together. Then, when you’re on set, you see the reality filling the frame and you begin to see how things will actually build together. Of course, it always changes, but preconceiving an editing style and shooting for matches on action is pretty standard.
I wouldn’t say that her approach to montage “takes precedent” over the images. Rather, it’s the necessary syntax to communicate her ideas. I’m guessing she imagines a mood or an emotion and, on set, allows those things play out before the camera.
I find Bastards easier to follow as narrative than The Intruder, though there are numerous images that feel discrete, almost as if Denis had conceived of them prior to the rest of the film. Which images stuck out for you in the newer film?
Felker: It’s funny that you say this about being easier to follow. I got the two brunettes [Chiara Mastroianni and Julie Bataille] mixed up at the beginning of the film, so I was confused for a bit. I had to stop the movie and map it out for myself. As for images, they’re less related to cinematography than to story details or props: a dress shirt full of cigarettes that hits the ground, the bright Aston Martin (which clashes with the darkness of the film), the stairwell outside of Vincent Lindon’s apartment. I have lingering questions about all of these things, and, really, that’s how the whole film feels. I can follow the emotion, the paths of desire, but if I start looking for clear explanations, I know I won’t get them.
Bass: Denis’s editing in Bastards has the same confrontational quality here as in The Intruder. There are few transitional shots between scenes, and Denis frequently takes us from a close-up of one character in one location to a close-up of another character in a completely different place. The actions don’t feel parallel or simultaneous, which is usually the effect of crosscutting. Instead, Denis creates something experiential—embodied and cognitive at the same time. Without transitions, no one is contextualized in terms of place or other characters. We’re simply put beside each person—sometimes very close—with little time to adjust or evaluate. The camera feels like a voyeur, but also like a participant. We feel somewhat complicit because we are so physically close to the events.
In an interview for Mubi.com, Denis described how her inspiration for Bastards came from lurid current events:
I’m very affected by reading newspapers, by hearing [about] violence on the radio. I cannot watch TV, Internet also. I’m stuffed with this fear for people; not for me, in a way, because it’s so abstract. But I have a fear, and maybe the film expresses that, also. Because I was . . . maybe it’s crazy but I was invaded by dark stories that happen every day. This young girl, and the next day this and this and that. It’s not banal, it’s never banal.
But what touched me is that it’s also sort of . . . it’s attractive. There wouldn’t be any news without those stories; politics are not enough. And because the economy is so bad I realized we’re getting more and more of those horrible stories as if they were nourishing something, in a world of people, not to fight against the economy, as if it were a sort of . . . sweet?”
What do you feel the movie communicates about “those stories”?
Felker: Even if it represents a dark form of humanity, a sex scandal still adds humanity to the world of shady business practices, and I think the public craves that human connection. Otherwise, the economy can appear to be full of robots. Also when the banks do something terrible, we’re mad, but we don’t really know what to do. When there’s a dark story of an Austrian man keeping his own daughter and half of the children the fathered with her in an underground prison, we at least know how to feel. We still can’t do anything, but this is different—there’s nothing to fix. We can relax, but we can still think that we’re participating in the stories.
Now I’m realizing that that’s how Bastards is arranged. We stick with the unfolding drama, because we feel like there’s someone to save the whole time. But in the end, the one we think we want to help is taken away before we find out the extent of the depravity. We’re freed of the need to fix that story, but left with an emotional mire.
Getting back to Faulkner, Denis has cited his novel Sanctuary as another major influence on the film. Melika, apart from its central horrific episode, what do you think the film owes to the book?
Bass: There’s an unrelenting ghastliness to both the film and book. Interestingly, Sanctuary is a bit of a Faulkner anomaly. He claimed he wrote it to sell books—it was his imagining of cheap and gory pulp entertainment. Maybe Bastards is something similar for Denis, a genre-bound narrative through which she can confront the worst possible ripped-from-the-headlines stories, even though (or maybe because) she can’t bring herself to read them in real life.
Bastards is the first movie that Denis and her cinematographer Agnès Godard shot digitally. It also has (in my opinion) some of their starkest, most stripped-down imagery. I wonder if this was intentional on their part—a comment on the poverty of digital cinematography vis-à-vis film. Maybe I’m reading too much into this? What do you think of the movie’s look?
Bass: They shot it on a Red Epic, and I read they did plenty of tests to work against the camera’s natural tendency to capture extreme detail and depth of field. The coolness of the video image certainly conveys the cruelty in and of the film. It also aids in conveying some of the characters’ claustrophobia, the sense of hiding, secrecy, and physical vulnerability. The proximity of the camera to the bodies seems important.
This tabloid-style story makes some sense on video—in some ways, we’re witnessing private images. The most powerful use of the video is in the degraded surveillance footage we see at the end. (The fragmented framing of bodies is similar to an earlier sex scene, also shot a bit from above.) The line about clients bringing their own cameras to the dingy sex den is perhaps the most direct response to this question. It’s a comment on the ubiquity and economy of the format. Video can be a customized memory device as well as a commodity of evidence. High-end video can glamorize, but (perhaps because of the precedent of film) it also has a plastic and flat feeling. Perhaps it’s the lack of the “life” as represented by the variants of dancing film grain . . .
Felker: At first I was less enthralled by [Denis and Godard’s] images than I normally am. It may have something to do with the fact that it’s mainly a Parisian film, and one set mostly in apartments and cars. Then again, I love Friday Night (which I’m disappointed isn’t part of this series), a gorgeous symphony of the city and its rooms. Perhaps this film isn’t as grand in its approach to the characters as other Denis movies. It’s pretty cold, and, in part, it’s about reconciling that coldness (appearances) with the heat of desire. When we see raw desire at the end, it’s through the lens of an exaggeratedly crappy consumer-grade camera.
Both The Intruder and Bastards center on these stoic, mysterious protagonists. Do you see any other commonalities between these characters? What do you think draws Denis to men like them?
Bass: Both characters are decision makers whose decisions affect other characters, yet their power and its origin remain hidden from us. Their morality is flawed, if not heinous. But, still, we stay with them for the films.
They’re both aging toughs—men past their prime who are still quite actively destructive. You sense a history with both but don’t know what it is. These characters, like so many in Denis, are in exile, and they generate narrative tension because we sense that their pasts are catching up to them. Their stories raise the question of accountability for past crimes and past lives.
Felker: “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” right? A world traveler who’s rugged, sexy, older. . . . He doesn’t need to tell you all of his stories—you couldn’t handle them. Besides, you can read them in the lines on his face and the scars on his hands. I think Denis [is] interested in critiquing that masculine facade. Both characters have built up these facades, but have so much unfinished business at home or within themselves. Maybe that connects to a larger theme of belonging.
These characters have a deep connection to a “home space” (for Subor in The Intruder, it’s the cabin and his dogs; for Lindon in Bastards, it’s the sea), but they also have this incredible ability to leave it behind to search for another home. And they’re both dads! How do they reconcile being alone/independent with having family/progeny?
In these discussions I’ve had about Claire Denis, I’ve barely touched on acting in her movies. It may be one of their most elusive qualities. I wouldn’t say anyone gives a “bad” performance in a Denis film, yet I’ve never really evaluated the acting. People in her movies seem to register first as presences, and only later as characters. Actually, this is how I felt about the subjects in your movies, Melika. Could you describe your working process with actors?
Bass: Denis seems like she writes for specific people. Acting in her films is often a matter of natural energy or posture or glance. I’ve read that she doesn’t tell her actors much about their characters’ behavior or history, and that this changes how they perform. I also write for performers or nonactors, constructing implied situations around figures in specific landscapes. However, because I’m interested in parsing out and withholding character information I do spend time creating some history with the actor in rehearsal, constructing scenes that won’t be in the finished film. That gives the performers time to think and create as their characters. This way, the film has a whiff of life lived and the mystery of encountering a stranger remains intact.