Born in Paris and raised in Africa, Claire Denis has lived the life of a wanderer. By the time of her first feature film, the luminous childhood memoir Chocolat (1988), she had already abandoned her studies of economics, worked briefly as a photographer, enrolled in the famed French film schoolknown as IDHEC and traveled the world working as an assistant director to such filmmakers as Dusan Makavejev, Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch. So it comes as little surprise that, in the remarkable series of features, shorts and documentaries that have established her as one of the most sensitive and lyrical filmmakers in contemporary cinema, Denis has continued to explore unseen places and peoples, inviting audiences along for the ride. From the colonial Cameroon of Chocolat to the African and West Indian cockfighters of No Fear, No Die to the expatriate Lithuanian community of I Can’t Sleep, Denis seems virtually incapable of turning her camera upon a familiar landscape. We, and the movies, are all the richer for it. During the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, I sat down with Denis to talk about her latest film, The Intruder (see review), which makes its belated arrival in Los Angeles theaters today.
L.A. WEEKLY: The book that inspired The Intruder?, by the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, was itself based on Nancy’s own experience of undergoing a heart transplant. But your film addresses the idea of intrusion from a host of different perspectives — physical intrusion, of course, but also emotional intrusion and the intrusion of one culture upon another.
CLAIRE DENIS: Intrusion into a body and comparing that to trans-border, clandestine people — the book actually starts like that, because Nancy mentions that his new heart could be a woman’s heart or even a black woman’s heart. On the other hand, the idea of dream as intrusion, this is not in the book really. But two years ago, I interviewed Nancy for a short film and he discussed how people who suffer from schizophrenia are sometimes said to be suffering from mental intrusion. Voices, images, parallel lives. Things like that.
The people in the film who live along the French-Swiss border all seem to be guarding themselves against invasion, by putting up fences and surrounding themselves with dogs. Yet, one of the most indelible aspects of the film itself is its openness to the outside world, its willingness to ignore borders or dissolve them entirely. In a very subterranean way, I wanted to talk about how northern people always have this dream of the perfect South — this perfect island that is paradise. So this is like that dream of the occidental, northern human being. And it’s not a modern idea — it’s an old idea.
Like in Robert Louis Stevenson.
At least he had a little irony about it. But for many people without irony, who consider themselves civilized people, these dream islands are a sort of paradise for them. At the same time, they are completely afraid of this nightmare of being invaded by hordes of people from the South who are trying to intrude upon this beautiful occidental northern economy. So, there is a contradiction and, I think, maybe in the film, the one who is trying to intrude is actually Michel Subor’s character — the northerner intruding on the South.
Certainly, he too possesses this dream of the perfect South.
But he wants to buy everything — a heart, a boat, his son. So he is a real intruder in the way that he does not wait for people to accept him or invite him.
What were your motivations for choosing the three primary locations in the film?
Tahiti was this dream Southern island — I didn’t know it would be Tahiti for sure, but I knew it was going to be like Gauguin’s paintings, and Gauguin described with such strength a place of the world that is in fact not a paradise. His paintings were misunderstood: Gauguin never painted a paradise. He painted a culture that was more than open sex, sunshine, fruit, and fish. The French-Swiss borderland, that I knew from childhood — one of my aunts used to live there and we were crossing the border very often. Also, it’s very wild, with beautiful forests and lakes — you can hide there. Korea I had been to, and in the script I had this in-between country where Louis is buying the boat, a sort of limbo between inferno and paradise.
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The Divine Comedy was also a source of inspiration for the most recent Godard film, Notre Musique?, and I was reminded of that film while watching The Intruder?, because it too expresses this sensitivity to foreign people and places, as opposed to the repugnant exoticism that you get in so many films — particularly Hollywood films — that see the world outside of America as little more than one big back lot.
You know, what is so attractive for me, being French, about American cinema, is this complete, solid American-ness — that American cinema is built solidly like a house with solid walls, and concentrates on what is inside the house. It makes American filmmakers sometimes so attractive and their films so attractive, because they’re so concentrated that they diffuse a sort of strength and power and reality. But on the other hand, it’s striking sometimes about some American directors — they might go to festivals and I see in their eyes how open they are to other cultures, but they would not take the risk to go outside with their cameras and film other people. Maybe they’re right in a way, because they make more solid films. Films like mine are maybe fragile in a way, more porous, more open. Sometimes, I would like to be in a more solid position, to be inside the fortress. But I have no choice. I’m outside. That’s my fate.
Yet ironically, within America’s own borders, the sense of potential intrusion is very heightened right now.
Yes. In the film, I was not trying to speak about France. I was trying to speak about the Northern Hemisphere in general. I made the border have a French flag and a Swiss flag just because a border needs two flags. But those could have been any flags.