She trusts the fiction to make her point

THE heart may be deceitful above all things, but sometimes it can tell a truth hidden to the mind — as in a slim book published in 2000 by French political philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. The text, titled "The Intruder," was a meditation occasioned by the heart transplant the author received in the late '80s, and the complications that arose when his immune system stubbornly rejected this life-saving intrusion. His sickness enabled him to describe with clarity the painful changes that come when the heart — physical or metaphorical — breaks and must be discarded if life is to carry on.

When French director Claire Denis adapted — or "adopted," as Nancy likes to say — the volume for the screen a few years later, the heart transplant remained but gained new symbolic significance. Her film, which opened in France last spring, grafted Nancy's themes onto a contemporary fiction about a rich protagonist who lives a solitary existence in a pristine mountainous region on the French-Swiss border, estranged from his family — a son, daughter-in-law and young grandson.

The old man's heart is giving way, and when he replaces it with a working organ purchased on the black market, he awakens post-surgery with a renewed zest for life and a new, urgent sense of purpose: He must travel east to locate the long-lost son he fathered and abandoned decades ago on a South Pacific island.

As the fragments of her cryptic, lyrical story fall into place, a subtle but powerful suggestion creeps to the surface: that the protagonist's quest for redemption at the other end of the world mirrors France's own contemporary crucible — the thirst for deliverance from its colonial past.

Connoisseurs of Denis immediately saw parallels between "The Intruder" and her 1999 film "Beau Travail," which transplanted a Herman Melville story to East Africa and dealt with unspoken tensions among soldiers toiling under the flag of the Foreign Legion in Djibouti.

"The Intruder's" allegory about a middle-aged Frenchman's ambivalent relationship with two sons caused an immediate stir in France. Critics there who deemed the film "crazy" and "the riskiest" of Denis' career signaled that the filmmaker had hit on the rawest of nerves. And as the French summer gave way last year to a fall of discontent that brought race riots and the most widespread civil unrest the country had witnessed in four decades, Denis' "Intruder" seemed to acquire new layers of meaning as a rumination on France's post-colonial hangover.

That's a theme that occupies most of her films, though organically embedded in larger quests — for a better life, for love, for pleasure, for closure. "To make fiction is a great way to catch a lot of things that are in the air, but in a natural way — like breathing," Denis says by phone from her home in the northeast of Paris. "A film is not conceived like a baby, but it still carries in its cells traces of who I am, where I live, where I come from. It's like a birthmark on a baby: something that is there already, but maybe I don't see it."

Storytelling that overtly (and obviously) attempts political commentary is not her style. "It would be so pretentious to be a reflection of my times. It's better to concentrate on the fiction and forget the rest."


Explanations? Mais nonTO American audiences it might come as a surprise that this petite woman in her mid-50s, with a passing resemblance to Edith Piaf and a hesitant mien, has become such a clairvoyant interpreter of her country's maladies. In life as in film, she's the opposite of the Michael Moores who trumpet their political convictions. If anything, she'd rather not muddle the waters with explanations. "I'm not sure I see my films better than others," she says.

But her lyrical, nonlinear work seems not to need her elucidation. Guylaine Vivarat-Goodich, a French expat who lives in Echo Park and spent the past couple of years working as a coordinator for a local French film festival, says she instantly recognized in Denis' latest film the poignant dilemma currently gnawing at her compatriots — "the fascination with our former colonies, romanticized but also feared as a symbol of our past mistakes. I originally left my country because of its rusty ways and self-fulfilling prophecies," she adds. "When I went back a month ago, it seemed that the situation had deteriorated. Faced with the urgent need to change, French society appeared even more stuck in its ways."

A number of recent films have reflected France's painful process of change. With the same passion that the protagonist in "The Intruder" travels to the South Pacific island seeking his abandoned son, a middle-aged woman played by Charlotte Rampling pursues her sexual obsession with young Haitian men in a recent French film called "Heading South."

And last year's "Caché" was an unsettling fable about a smug bourgeois couple rattled out of their complacency by a series of surveillance tapes that materialize on their doorstep to accuse them of complicity in the Franco-Algerian problem.

" 'Caché' seems to me more interested in examining how white French people succeed, or not, in hiding their troublesome pasts," says Judith Mayne, a professor of French and women's studies at Ohio State University who also wrote a book on Denis. "In 'The Intruder,' the colonial past is almost a dream state. And in the world of Denis' films, such encounters are taking place all the time; it doesn't take surveillance to bring them to the surface."


'People think I'm strange'IN films suspended between reverie and meditation, Denis is known for shunning dialogue and letting the camera do the talking. With help from her longtime collaborator, cinematographer Agnès Godard, she delivers lingering shots that capture the majesty of nature and register her actors in tender detail.

Her soundtracks are usually sparse, slow and hypnotic, and an instinct to pair visual vignettes with unexpected song choices results in her films' most memorable moments — "Beau Travail's" legionnaires, say, marching through the desert to the tune of Neil Young's "Safeway Cart" while a group of Djiboutians observe them in perplexed silence. But detractors find the pace of her films irritating, and her trademark lack of explicit narrative has been known to enrage audiences. Even in her homeland, where she's regularly invited to promote her work on television talk shows, Denis is not exactly a box-office draw. "In France people think I'm strange," she says. "An alien."

That perception might have something to do with her personal history: Born in Paris, she grew up in various African countries where her father worked as a career diplomat. After attending film school in the mid-'70s, she apprenticed with Jacques Rivette, Jim Jarmusch and Wim Wenders. The latter co-produced her 1989 debut picture, "Chocolat," a languid story about a young French woman revisiting her childhood home in 1950s Cameroon, which foreshadowed the themes that stitch all of Denis' work together.

With Wenders and Jarmusch she shares an ability to find poetry in the most prosaic details of contemporary life. And like them, she's taken occasional detours that have stunned even her supporters. In 2001's "Trouble Every Day," she composed a parable about sex and cannibalism. Her next film, "Friday Night," was an almost entirely wordless ode to a Parisian woman's one-night stand — and it did not please her otherwise devoted admirers.

"Because I'm an alien in France, I wouldn't be afraid to work in the States," Denis says. "I would probably be able to work with a producer in America, if there was something we could cook together. My films don't cost much, so I think I'm able to do a lot of things in any country." ("The Intruder's" budget was $2 million.)

The question remains, though, of whether a work like "The Intruder" will be digestible by American audiences, who are perhaps not so keenly attuned to the cultural and social discourse of Denis' homeland. Supporters argue that it speaks on myriad levels, even when divorced from its indigenous context.

For Denis, the journey of "The Intruder" has been bittersweet. She says she's still mourning Humbert Balsan, her producer on this project, who committed suicide just as the movie was opening in France.

And she's at work on a new film, which she refuses to discuss but for which she reveals that she's already doing location scouting.

"I start because there is hope that I can reach new boundaries," she says. "It's so full of hope — writing and creating, starting a script. So I'm always hoping…."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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