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    The Intruder

    "Why?" spy

    "The Intruder" is a nicely crafted but deliberately obtuse film that's partly about a Russian agent on the Swiss border — but mostly about baffling the audience.


    For no particular reason, the very last scene of "The Intruder" shows a gap-toothed woman driving her dogsled over a barren snowscape in the vicinity of the French-Swiss border and cackling into the frosty air. Only in the credits that follow do we learn that this woman is known as the "Queen of the Northern Hemisphere." Which makes as much sense as anything else in the movie.

    Original title: l'Intrus.
    Directed by: Claire Denis.
    Written by: Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau.
    Adapted from a novel by: Jean-Luc Nancy.
    Cast: Bambou, Grˇgoire Colin, Bˇatrice Dalle, Yekaterina Golubeva, Florence Loiret, Michel Subor.
    Cinematography: Agn¸s Godard.
    Edited by: Nelly Quettier.
    Rendezvous with French Cinema 2005
    • A Tout de Suite
    • Holy Lola
    • The Intruder
    Directed with exasperating creativity by Claire Denis ("Friday Night"), "The Intruder" starts vaguely, proceeds enigmatically, and ends inexplicably. It's a filmmaker-y kind of film in which the director's own cleverness is more the point than the story's meaning. If you're in an extraordinarily indulgent mood, you might love it.

    The movie starts with a series of disconnected characters who have two things in common — physical sensuality and dogs, not necessarily at the same time. One woman (Florence Loiret of "The Time of the Wolf") is a canine officer at a ramshackle border station, showering love on the hound that sniffs out drugs in immigrants' cars. Another woman ("Betty Blue" star Beatrice Dalle), while not hiking around in a loose-fitting tank top, raises sled dogs in her fenced-in farm yard. A still-fit retiree (Michel Subor) spends his idle time hiking, biking and swimming around the countryside — with dogs gamboling along. Hunters take their own dogs on outings, sharing the woods only with flitting border-jumpers, smugglers and immigration cops. Much time is spent admiring the scenery as well as the robust bodies of our characters.

    The Intruder  
    Eventually, as if the director yelled, "Here, boy!" at the plot, we begin to focus in on the retiree, who is living out his days by himself in a remote cabin. Solitude and coronary crises haven't tamed his lusty nature, though. When an attractive middle-aged pharmacist from the city shows up with his prescription, he growls, "Medication, schmedication," and scoops her up in his passionate arms. He gives us a powerful sense of charisma — mixed, later, with repulsion.

    The trouble is, from here the movie zigzags in three tenuously connected directions, abandoning each thread to pick up the next. It's intended to puzzle us — and sure, the little puzzles peppered throughout the film are fine. It's the grand non-sequiturs that are distracting.

    The first third of the film finds our retiree in the middle of a series of violent deaths, and we begin to question who he is and what he's doing out there. Perhaps he's a decommissioned KGB agent — his accent is French but his passport is Russian — and perhaps some of the shadowy figures in the woods are after him. Or being sent to him. Or ...

      The Intruder
    Well, never mind the other possibilities because presently he's in Geneva engaging in mysterious financial transactions and trying to weasel his way into a life-saving heart transplant. And just when you have a handle on plot number two, along comes plot number three. Our man is suddenly shipping out to Korea to make a deal for a cargo vessel. No wait, now he's in Tahiti to find his long-lost son. Ah, that's what this finally is about — a father's love for his son. How sweet.

    But it's not a sweet movie at all. It's full of danger, death, mystery, blood stains, found corpses, and sinister intentions. And yet, the movie's gruesome moments are painted so instantaneously on the back of the brain that they don't leave us with the impression of a gory movie — only a troubling one. Denis works a lot of magic in the making of this film. Her most striking technique is to flash an instant of violence on the screen — or omit it completely — and then linger long on the aftermath's pedestrian details. A slashing lasts two seconds at most, but we watch rugged hands expertly clean the bloody knife. A woman with a rifle takes intrepid steps into a seemingly empty house, and the next time we explore the house there's a rifle and blood but no woman. In between, we watch grasses wave and water ripple in the breeze. Part of what makes this a potentially great thriller is how it teases the mind with hints of mystery underlying its images of country calm. You watch all the more closely so as not to miss one crucial scrap.

    These mysteries, however, are dropped rather than resolved. The Russian passport — gone and forgotten. Bodies number one, two and three — never investigated. A man dragged behind a horse and then left to freeze to death — maybe just a dream. There could be an unstated narrative that explains all — that turns every single question mark into an exclamation point — but I don't think so. Because finally, when it's time to find out about the man's lost son, the face we see is an impossible one. We can try to backtrack from this final revelation all the way through parts three, two and one of the story, back to the beginning, but we get no answer that makes sense. This absurd climax, like much else in the film, can only be symbolic. Which is why it's fitting enough to cap the whole thing with a shot of the Queen of the Northern Hemisphere laughing incongruously at events that, from beginning to end, have had nothing to do with her. Why not? Ultimately, it's an inside joke of a film — made to be analyzed more than enjoyed. To be sure, it's a skillful, watchable, intensely dramatic movie, but it's also a finger in the eye of the linear-minded.

    MARCH 11, 2005

    Reader comments on The Intruder:

  • The Intruder   from Jim Noakes, Jan 10, 2006
  • The Intruder   from Rob Butler, Feb 28, 2006
  • The Intruder   from Nick, Mar 9, 2006
  • Re: The Intruder   from , Jun 4, 2006
  • Re: The Intruder   from Pat, May 31, 2009
  • My take on The Intruder   from baronne, Apr 11, 2006
  • L'intrus/The Intruder, film by Claire Denis   from Katherine, Aug 17, 2006
  • Dogs ending dogs your beginning   from von fromme, Sep 25, 2006
  • the intruder   from traci.crowell, May 9, 2010

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