Mapping the Human Heart

By Metin Alsanjak

intruder-claire-denis.jpgThe Intruder, 2004

Claire Denis offers a striking take on the body's central urgency in her atmospheric new feature The Intruder

For nearly 20 years, French film-maker Claire Denis has been creating disarming, alluring cinema. Her minimal narratives have more in common with poetry than prose, her near-silent visuals seeming sometimes more photographic than filmic. Each of her works is a breathtaking, unique experience. By using sound so precisely, she heightens audience responses, making one listen to breath, rustles of clothing, distant police sirens. When music enters a scene, it is often sudden, enchanting and dream-like.

Denis’ exploration of the extremes of human desire may form a common theme, but the subject matter varies enormously. In her most acclaimed film, Beau Travail, she explores hatred through an unspoken feud between French Legionnaires posted in Djibouti. In Trouble Every Day, lust is interrogated as two people eat their victims alive during sex. With Vendredi Soir, freedom and pleasure provide the focus, through an anonymous love affair sparked off by an attractive stranger entering a woman’s car in a traffic jam. In her latest feature, The Intruder (L’Intrus), the selfishness and desperation of one man to cheat death by buying a new heart fuel the narrative.

Denis’ long-time collaborator Michel Subor plays 68-year-old Louis Trebor, a man living alone in the French mountains, his only friends two dogs. His indifference to his son and the abandonment of pregnant lovers in his past makes him what Denis calls ‘the heartless man’. To remedy this heartlessness, he embarks on an epic voyage to South Korea for a transplant, before travelling from island to island, tracing his former lovers and offspring, all the way to a remote island near Tahiti. Like much of her work, The Intruder is inspired by paintings, memoirs, novels, films and above all people.

With such an array of sources, genres and metaphors feeding into the film, Denis’ own comments offer a fascinating insight into her intentions for the film. The comments she makes on this page are taken from an interview by Damon Smith, originally published by the influential Internet film magazine Senses of Cinema.

“For a surgeon, a heart transplant is honestly easy. And for many surgeons, they say it’s like being a plumber. The metaphysical aspect is very heavy, though, because, number one, your heart is tired. The pump is going to stop. You don’t know when, but probably you have signs. Number two, the heart that is going to save your life comes from a freshly dead person whom you don’t know - maybe a kid who was crushed by a car in the street or a young woman who committed suicide… whatever. Then the dream starts, because whose heart is it? It’s an intruder.”

“Even if it’s the dream of a voyage, I think it was very important for me that the film offer the two sides of the globe, the northern and southern hemisphere, as the two sides of the heart… We made a long trip by boat from one island to another in the South Pacific, because I wanted to understand the attraction that has driven so many writers and painters and also very ordinary people to foresee those islands as a sort of paradise, as a blissful life. I wanted to feel that.”

“The making of the film was very violent, and hard, you know…so many times I thought I was literally at the edge of my resistance, always convincing the crew that, even though we have so little, it’s great to do this, to travel from one island to another. I had almost to force them to follow me.”  

“I don’t want to defend the film. I think in a way people expect so much of a film, so many answers, that they are very much afraid to let themselves drift. L’Intrus is like a boat lost in the ocean drifting.”

The full text of Damon Smith’s interview with Claire Denis is available at

Metin Alsanjak is the editor of Vertigo online and a London-based freelance journalist