By Yonca Talu
Nowhere has Claire Denis and her cinematographer Agnès Godard’s three-decade collaboration produced more surreal and puzzling images than in L’Intrus (2004), the director’s fictional interpretation of philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s memoir of his heart transplant. Gorgeously shot in Scope, L’Intrus stars Michel Subor—whom Denis had previously cast in 1999’s Beau travail—as Louis Trebor, a wealthy sexagenarian who leaves his reclusive life in the Jura Mountains to track down the son he never met at the other end of the world. Juxtaposing shadowy interiors and lavish landscapes from all seasons, L’Intrus reveals Godard’s expansive range as a director of photography as much attuned to the characters’ emotions as to the rhythms and details of nature.
Last year, Godard got on a video call with me from Switzerland, where she was completing the shoot.
YONCA TALU: Part of your preparation for L’Intrus consisted of immersing yourself in Faulkner’s literature. What prompted you to revisit his novels after reading the script?
AGNÈS GODARD: I had seen pictures of Faulkner and thought there was a physical resemblance between him and Michel Subor when we were shooting Beau travail. I saw them as embodying a similar kind of manhood, which was also influenced by the fact that the commandant played by Michel in Beau travail was named after Le Petit soldat’s protagonist, Bruno Forestier. And when I read the script for L’Intrus, its story of a solitary man and his relationship with his son reminded me of Absalom, Absalom!’s main character, Thomas Sutpen. So all of this piled up like sedimentary layers and fed each other.
But what mainly led me to Faulkner was Claire’s approach to the character of Louis Trebor in L’Intrus and her way of portraying his dark side without ever judging him. Although Faulkner’s novels contain very violent scenes, there’s never any judgment, and that’s what makes his work so powerful in my opinion.
YT: Certain aspects of your cinematography in L’Intrus also seem to be inspired by Faulkner’s universe, like your use of dramatic chiaroscuro lighting in the interiors to convey Trebor’s moral ambiguity and inner turmoil.
AG: Yes. There are very cinematic descriptions in Faulkner’s books, and the beginning of Absalom, Absalom!, in which he describes the light in Sutpen’s house, might have unconsciously informed my perception of Trebor’s house in L’Intrus. It was a very inspiring house to shoot in—it was covered in wood and felt like a sanctuary—and I tried to give depth to the light so that Trebor would alternate between visibility and darkness as he moved around.
Another passage that comes to mind is Lena Grove’s departure from home in Light in August. Faulkner conveys how excruciating it must be for that pregnant young woman to walk on a dry road under the heat. And that’s also the role of lighting in cinema—to provide sensations that reflect the characters’ psyche.
“although journeying across the globe was a magical and enriching experience for us, it’s an endless escape for Trebor [MICHEL SUBOR] himself, who remains the same wherever he goes.”
YT: From the Jura countryside to the islands of French Polynesia, the landscapes in L’Intrus are as stunning as they are unsettling. How did you and Claire Denis approach the depiction of nature in the film? Did you draw on any paintings?
AG: I looked at the paintings of Gustave Courbet, a native of Ornans [a commune near the Jura region], and I was very inspired by his sensual and erotic representation of nature and its elements, like light, shadows, rocks, and caves. We shot in wild and mysterious places on the French-Swiss border, such as the forest in which Trebor sunbathes naked alongside his dogs, and it was a similar experience to that of shooting in the Djibouti desert on Beau travail—I didn’t know whether it was the beginning or the end of the world.
It was the same in Polynesia, whose idyllic landscapes do acquire an unsettling quality in the film. I had never been there before and discovered through the camera the beauty of that mythical place, which had epitomized paradise for me ever since childhood. But although journeying across the globe was a magical and enriching experience for us, it’s an endless escape for Trebor himself, who remains the same wherever he goes. He might have a new heart, but his internal world never changes and permeates the locations he visits.
YT: How did your collaboration with Michel Subor on Beau travail inform your camerawork on L’Intrus, which achieves a remarkable synergy with the actor’s performance?
AG: I regarded Trebor as a continuation of Forestier. But while Forestier was surrounded by all the legionnaires in Beau travail, Trebor is alone on the face of the earth in L’Intrus and encapsulates the whole film, which is why we shot in Scope. I didn’t speak much with Michel on set because looking at him was an inexhaustible task in and of itself. For me, he was a fictional character whose mystery I was trying to break through, and each time I hoped to unmask him further and find out what was going on inside his head. But I never truly succeeded, and that’s what’s fascinating to me—we never know what Trebor is thinking, whether he’s shaving, taking care of his dogs, or driving.
YT: The closing minutes of L’Intrus feature a sumptuous shot of a Polynesian sunset captured from a gently rocking ship. Do you remember how you felt as you were filming that ethereal moment, which Claire Denis has compared to the experience of dying?
AG: I remember we were traveling from Papeete to the island of Huahine on the deck of that cargo ship, enveloped by an overwhelmingly lush and impressive environment, when suddenly night fell. The sky turned purple, then pitch darkness descended, and I felt as though we had lost everything and all that beauty had vanished forever. So it did resemble death in that respect. It was like a metaphor of tragedy—like going inside Trebor’s soul and encountering nothing but his dark side. A dead end.
YT: Your camerawork reaches frantic heights in the nightmarish horse-riding sequence in which Katia Golubeva’s character punishes Trebor by dragging his body across the snow. How grueling was it to shoot that scene?
It was a risky but thrilling experience. Katia Golubeva was riding a horse at gallop, while I was lying on a sled dragged by another galloping horse next to her, with the camera over my shoulder. I was afraid of not pulling it off, but we pushed ourselves to the limit and finished with that close-up on Katia’s face when she says the film’s most Faulknerian line to Trebor: “You’ll never pay enough.” The scene felt like a Western, and it would not have been possible without Claire’s daring and her faith in the power of images seized from life as opposed to something staged.
YT: Did you and Claire Denis decide on a particular way of portraying Katia Golubeva, who plays an allegorical figure suspended between reality and dream?
Not really, though the script made it clear that she was Trebor’s conscience. Claire’s method is to let her collaborators find their own inspiration in the situations she places us in, and it so happened that Katia was an extremely inspiring woman. She was the perfect person to play the role because she had been chosen by Claire for that purpose. And her scenes emerged organically on the spot, like that shot on the snow in which her feet enter the frame, and the camera tilts up her body to reveal her face as she turns around—she just made you want to look at her from head to toe.
YT: Another visual highlight is the ceremonial ship launching in the Port of Busan, in which the camera sensuously glides along multicolored ribbons undulating in the wind. How did that sequence come about?
That ceremony took place when we were in Busan, and Claire wanted to film it because it was so beautiful and spectacular. I experienced it as something unprecedented, a new energy and hope for Trebor, who had lost one son but was on his way to finding his other son. And he was reaching for the moon by buying him a boat—his power had no limits.
Translated by Yonca Talu.
Yonca Talu is a filmmaker and film critic living in Paris.