Imagining the Elements with Gaston Bachelard and Claire Denis: ‘Weighted’ Images, Drift and Diffusion in L’Intrus/The Intruder

In: Studies in World Cinema
Saige Walton Senior Lecturer, Screen Studies, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

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Adapted from philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy’s semi-autobiographical text, The Intruder remains one of French director Claire Denis’ most transnational and yet dreamlike works. In this article, I pair philosopher Gaston Bachelard (in particular, his concept of the material and dynamic imagination and his reveries on water and air) with Denis to explore how The Intruder enacts an imagining of the elements and an elemental poetics of film form. Bringing Bachelard into a dialogue with Saad Chakali’s, Rosalind Galt’s and Nancy’s writing on the film’s imagery, I also approach The Intruder as an image-poem that is structured by poetically ‘weighted’ images and by recurrent symbolism. Shot through with an oneiric sense of drift, voyaging and diffusion, I explore some of the ways that Denis’s elemental imaginings of air and oceanic water reflect an affective politics.

A true poet […] wants the imagination to be a journey […] If the initial image is well chosen, it stimulates a well-defined poetic dream, an imaginary life that will have real laws governing successive images, a truly vital telos.

bachelard, 2011: 3

L’Intrus is like a boat lost in the ocean drifting, you know?

claire denis in smith, 2005

Claire Denis’s L’Intrus (The Intruder, 2004) begins with fire. More precisely, the film opens with the shot of a young woman (Katerina Golubeva), flicking a cigarette lighter and lighting a cigarette in near total darkness. As she looks at the camera, a voice-over (speaking French, inflected by a Russian accent) commences: “Your worst enemies are hiding inside … in the shadow”. Only later will we be able to connect this off-screen voice to the pale woman who appears in the shadows – a character credited by Denis as the “young Russian woman”. Footage of the woman smoking cedes to a black screen. After the voice-over resumes, concluding the film’s opening line (“… in your heart”), it is never heard again. The young Russian will go on to feature throughout The Intruder, however, doggedly pursuing the film’s lead, the nefarious Louis Trébor (Michel Subor), around the globe.

Brief as it is, the cryptic prologue that opens The Intruder contains within it many of the film’s overarching metaphors and motifs: Denis’s repeated allusions to the heart (literal and figurative); the recurrence of obscure or menacing figures (who, like the Russian, often appear on the margins of the film’s action); and Denis’s evocations of alterity and foreignness via Jean-Luc Nancy’s philosophical theme of the ‘intruder’.1 As has been well documented, Denis derives both her film’s title and part of her inspiration from Nancy’s L’Intrus (2000/2002): a “part-essay, part-diary, part-stream of consciousness” text in which the philosopher’s meditations on foreignness are interwoven with his experience of a heart transplant (Beugnet, 2008: 34).2 In an interview following The Intruder’s release, Denis spoke of always wanting to retain “something completely unknown” in transposing Nancy’s text to the screen (Smith, 2005). For Denis, the metaphysical implications of undergoing a heart transplant and of having a ‘foreign’ body inside one’s chest were ideas “so big, so vast” they demanded something “more than any realistic story” (Smith, 2005).

Shot through with an oneiric sense of drift, voyaging and diffusion, The Intruder achieves in cinema what philosopher Gaston Bachelard (2011: 3) has elsewhere referred to as the “well-defined poetic dream” of the imagination. In what follows, I draw on Bachelard’s writings on the imagination to develop a new, substantially imaginative approach for Denis’s play upon elemental images and sounds in The Intruder. In pairing Bachelard with Denis, I propose that an imagining of the elements raises questions about what constitutes an elemental poetics of film form – a contribution to the burgeoning of the ‘elements’ in film and media theory that attends both to the physicality of the elements onscreen and to cinema’s re-imaginings of the natural world. Similarly, in Bachelard’s multi-layered philosophy of the imagination, the imagination is attached to material “images that stem directly from matter” (1999: 1) and to a creative de-forming and re-shaping of the world’s materiality by the poet/author (or, as I have argued elsewhere, the filmmaker) (Walton, 2020).3

Bringing Bachelard into a dialogue with Denis and with Saad Chakali’s, Rosalind Galt’s and Nancy’s writings on the film’s imagery, I approach The Intruder as an image-poem that is structured by ‘weighted’ images and by recurrent symbolism.4 I use the term ‘weighted’ here to capture the substantial imagery that pervades Denis’s image-poem and its formal resonances with Bachelard’s philosophy. In Bachelard’s writings on water and air, as for Denis’s film, ‘weighted’ images conjoin the imagination of matter with dynamism or a fluidity of form. In The Intruder, the elements also function as a means of socio-political critique. Denis’s re-imaginings of the Pacific Ocean and the film’s recurrent nautical sequences – including excerpts showing a young Michel Subor, taken from Paul Gégauff’s Le reflux (The Ebb-Tide, 1965) – help to figure the film’s implicit themes of colonialism, capitalism, death, debt and corruption. An affective politics circulates throughout The Intruder: a politics made manifest through Denis’s elemental imaginings of air, fire, breath, oceanic water and wind.

Transnational Winds and Truncated Breath

Produced in collaboration with Arte France and partially funded by the Busan Film Commission, The Intruder remains Denis’s most explicitly transnational and yet dreamlike work to date. Intensely image-driven and structured in three parts, the film’s loose, winding narrative follows Trébor (a man with a questionable past) in his efforts to stave off his own mortality as he travels from the Jura region in eastern France to Switzerland, South Korea and French Polynesia (Tahiti, the Marquesas Islands) before returning (sans Trébor) back to eastern France again. The global journey the film undertakes is a “loop”, as Denis has stated, a loop that follows “the curve of the Earth as I imagine it” (Arte France, 2004: 3).

Traditionally, the imagination is understood as the hermetic formation of images in the human mind. For Bachelard, by contrast, the imagination has “deep roots in material life” (2011: 238). In developing his studies of the imagination via the classical elements, the philosopher sought to reveal the “true element and the true movement” behind imagined images, both of which he saw as preceding the staid life of representational forms (Bachelard, 2011: 28). What Bachelard understands as the so-called ‘material’ imagination “thinks matter, dreams matter, lives in matter […] it materializes the imaginary” (2011: 3). Any imagining of the world’s materiality must be accompanied by the ‘dynamic’ imagination: that aspect of the imagination that “strives continually to subject matter to motion” (Kearney, 1991: 106). Whereas the material imagination is connected to matter, the dynamic imagination shapes imagined images into different gradations of speed, energy, force and movement. Through the “creative tempest” that is dynamic imagination, he writes, “everything becomes active; nothing comes to rest. Motion creates being; whirling air creates the stars […]” (Bachelard, 2011: 227).5

In The Intruder, Denis portrays literal and imagined movement in decidedly aerial terms. The first close-up we see in The Intruder consists of an aerial shot, focusing on the transnational movement of wind. The camera’s vision holds on a hoisted French flag standing sentinel on the Franco-Swiss border, flapping in the wind. Moving down the flagpole, the camera drifts horizontally to the checkpoint’s other side where a Swiss flag is also picked up by the breeze. A van arrives at the border, prompting a female customs enforcement officer, Antoinette (Florence Loiret Caille), and her eager dog to begin a search of the vehicle. After drugs are found inside the van, an anonymous man is denied entry and escorted off-screen. When night-time returns, wind is replaced by breathy sounds of physical exertion. These sounds are made by groups of illegal immigrants, trying to steal across borders under the cover of night. In the semi-darkness, Denis films the nightly intruders clamouring over stone walls in the forest (some with bundled belongings, others with just the clothes on their backs). As the refugees hit the ground and run, scattering in all directions, the film’s soundtrack (a looping, single-note guitar track) by Stuart Staples begins.

In The Intruder, the mysterious Russian (a figure Denis calls Trébor’s “Angel of Doom”) is associated with air, breath and fire (Smith, 2005). Following the film’s first shots of refugees, furtively moving across geo-political borders, Denis locates the Russian in the Jura, invoking her as an ephemeral, breathy presence in the night. In a striking, audio-visual combination of air, breath, music and fire, the film’s red title credits appear, accompanied by a lit cigarette. The cigarette’s glow is detached from any visible body. Instead, Staples’ guitar riff intertwines with the sound of the young Russian, inhaling and exhaling. The Russian’s breath causes the fiery image to rise and fall in intensity. Hovering over the film’s title card and accompanied by a circular light, the cigarette moves about in the darkness like a red searchlight – seeking out the film’s many ‘intruders’ (including the global ‘intruder’ known as Louis Trébor).

As Martine Beugnet notes, despite the film’s recurrent emphases on “frontiers and customs” (human “borders that divide the surface of the earth”) and its visually divisive compositions (border checkpoints, window frames, bank vaults, doorways), Denis portrays “enclosures, boundaries and partitions as porous, vulnerable to the intrusion of the gaze, the movement of bodies” (Beugnet, 2007: 114–15; see also Beugnet, 2008). Via Bachelard, I think we can link the film’s porosity to Denis’s vaporous evocations of wind and breath. In Air and Dreams, Bachelard proposes that air has a special affinity with the dynamic imagination such that “movement takes precedence over matter” (2011, 8). The “relationship between the wind and breath” would deserve its own study, however: “Wind for the world, breath for man”, he insists (2011: 236–37). Across his studies of the imagination, the philosopher repeatedly invokes poetic parallels between wind and breath to indicate a shared form of respiration between the human and the non-human, the “being who breathes and the breathed world” (Bachelard, 1971: 181; see also Bachelard, 2011).

Throughout The Intruder, Trébor is situated in nature-based sequences that play on an intermingling of breath, water and wind. When we first encounter Trébor, he is naked in the forests of the Jura. Sounds of water from a nearby stream accompany his movements. With his face upturned to the sun, he lets out a loud and slightly pained exhalation. In these moments, Denis portrays Trébor as taking pleasure in nature and in the presence of his two husky dogs (two dogs that he will eventually abandon, when their company no longer suits him). Writing of temperate, sedate breezes, Bachelard moves freely between descriptors of breath and wind to convey the imagination of a worldly, “gentle breath” (2011: 16). The dream of breathing “pure air can be associated dynamically [with] the imagination” (2011: 237), he asserts. “Balmy air and pleasant scents are experienced in such images. They are formed in a reverie about sun-filled wind” (2011: 237). As Trébor lies at the base of a tree, sleepily sunbathing with his two dogs, Denis cuts to an ambiguous overhead shot of immense trees. Their texture and shape seem at odds with the greenery around Trébor even as his breathing audibly filters through the image. In a fleeting, vertical shot, Denis connects the Jura to an unspecified location in French Polynesia. By way of tall trees, breath and gentle breezes, she stylises Trébor’s dream (or possibly his memory image) of French Polynesia as a balmy reverie.

As Laura McMahon comments of Denis’s shot parallels, the film’s ecological “resonance of movement signals in non-human terms the border-crossing concerns of the film” (2014: 7). Through aerial imagery, especially wind and breath, Denis makes imaginative connections between different countries and hemispheres.6 Chakali (2005) concurs, noting that wind “blows wherever it wants” in The Intruder, unburdened by geographic coordinates. While Bachelard speaks of a worldly, gentle breath and sun-filled winds, he notes other aerial possibilities that figure in Denis’s film. In Air and Dreams, Bachelard cites the raging, “violent whistling of the wind” as an indication of air’s “elemental fury” and as something that “shakes the dreamer, or the listener”. We “could cite many poems whose primary power and voice is the storm”, he observes (2011: 229). Similarly, there are darker undertones to Denis’s windy, nature-based depictions of Trébor (ominous undertones that circulate throughout the film, dominating the film’s last stormy, oceanic ‘act’).

After Trébor returns to Tahiti and the Marquesas Islands to re-connect with his estranged, Polynesian-born son, the film’s footage visibly darkens and is tinged with purple hues. Air’s movement is rendered visible through the windswept movement of mosquito netting, bright islander print fabrics and Denis’s focus on plant life. As Denis foregrounds tropical wind and storms moving through the region, the camera drifts skyward, showcasing sets of palm trees standing like tall, darkened shadows against a stormy, violet-tinged sky (Fig. 1). Later, while Trébor lies alone in his island hut, offset by a lone, pale-blue light, Denis repeats another semi-detached, overhead shot of wind in the trees. This time, Denis’s windy shot is protracted: exposing the passing of time and Trébor’s diminishing fantasy of a filial reunion. In one long take, the camera moves slowly along the hut’s partially exposed roof, lingering on palm fronds moved about by tropical gusts. Moving downward, the camera comes to a halt on a swatch of fabric at the hut’s open window. When Denis finally cuts back to Trébor, he is still awaiting a visit from an estranged son (possibly just his dream of a son) that will never come.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Wind and erratic breath in The Intruder. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 3, 2 (2023) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10029

For critics such as Chakali (2005), Trébor is the film’s “horrible intruder”, a shadowy figure who incurs debt across the globe and who, Robinson-Crusoe-like, intrudes on French Polynesia to live out his own selfish desires.7 Unlike the film’s refugees or those we see stopped at the border, Trébor’s unexplained wealth (and his multiple passports) allows him to pass freely between countries, to purchase an idyll of “Swiss purity” or seek out a new heart on the black market (Chakali, 2005). Likewise, for Denis, Trébor is an amoral capitalist: a character whom she literally scripted as “A Man with No Heart” (Smith, 2005).

While in the Jura, Trébor’s ragged breathing intimates his failing heart. When Denis cuts to Trébor’s face, following his tropical island reverie, he gives a pained expression. He grabs one of his husky dogs, burrowing his face into the dog’s thick coat (a self-entitled gesture that pre-empts his grabbing of a croissant from the French son he neglects). When he later experiences a heart attack while swimming, his husky dogs and an anonymous man (obscured by foliage) watch on, unperturbed. Dragging his body onto the lake’s foreshore, Trébor is filmed clutching a pile of earth and unearthing a cigarette stub (another of the film’s fire-based references to the Russian) and, later, clutching at and rubbing his chest. Following his heart attack, he meets the Russian in a Geneva hotel room to buy a new heart: “I want a young heart”, a male heart, he insists. Yet not even a “new heart will […] free Trébor from his own history”, as Beugnet (2008: 38) comments.

On the Marquesas Islands, Trébor’s body struggles with the illegally purchased organ in his chest. Surrounded by sweeping winds, he traces his chest’s scar tissue over and over again, breathing painfully once more. Connecting the film’s many wind-based shots to Denis’s repeated evocations of breath, Chakali (2005) identifies “a shortness of breath that blows” through The Intruder. While Bachelard by and large associates the worldly respiration of wind and breath with good health and calm, Denis’s aerial imaginings convey her vision of a “dead man” (Smith, 2005). Through wind-based shots, Trébor’s ragged breathing and a focus on literal and impending storms, Denis portrays Trébor’s global journey as a selfish, suffocating force. Ultimately, Trébor’s living, breathing presence and his purchase of a newly beating heart (bought, literally, at the expense of another) will be the undoing of many of the film’s youth, inadvertently suffocating “his son, all the sons (including the daughters)” (Chakali, 2005).8

‘Weighted’ Images

In Air and Dreams, Bachelard openly describes the difficulty of studying the imagination of fleeting matter such as air. “The most important thing to me is to show that a weight factor intervenes […] in the dynamic imagination”, he writes; “I want to stress the necessity of weighing […] by weighing the psyche” that is borne of aerial imagery. For Bachelard, the dynamic imagination is a maker of “aerial hopes” and “a psychic amplifier” (2011: 12, original emphasis). Similarly, in Water and Dreams, he praises the imagination for yielding “images of matter” that are “dreamt substantially and intimately. They have weight; they constitute a heart” (Bachelard, 1999: 1, emphasis added). Whereas forms signal surface values (colour, light) in Bachelard’s work, ‘weighted’ images are attached to the world and to all the dynamic possibilities of the elements.

Following his heart operation Trébor is next seen in Busan, South Korea (a location in which the Russian flits in and out of view). In Busan, he finalises the purchase of a traditional Polynesian canoe for his lost son before walking to the international harbour to set sail for Tahiti. In the shipyard sequence that follows, Denis creates a series of ‘weighted’ images, centred on the poetics of seawater and air. Here, Denis shifts focus away from Trébor and, for the most part, away from the film’s human concerns entirely. In one moment, Trébor appears in a profile shot, looking around the shipyard. In the next, the film cuts to an extended shot of seawater, moving beneath the hull of a ship. Seawater fills the entire film frame, rippling across the screen’s shadowed surface.

The camera’s focus rises to reveal the ship’s large propeller, anchoring Denis’s aqueous shot (Fig. 2). The following shot re-orients the film’s scale and focus yet again, as Denis cuts to a distanced, exterior view of the ship’s immense prow. The camera’s focus rises and rises, taking in the sheer expanse of the docked ship. Off-screen, the musical sounds of an orchestral band can be heard, tuning their instruments in advance of official ceremonies that are being held at the port. Halting its movement on the ship’s upper deck, the camera holds on a celebratory red-and-white banner and on a large red-and-white inflated fabric ball, visibly rippling in the wind. These decorations have been placed on the ship in anticipation of its christening.

Figure 2
Figure 2

A ‘weighted’ image of seawater in The Intruder. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 3, 2 (2023) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10029

For Bachelard, imagined “images cannot survive” if they “are merely formal play, not truly adapted to the matter that they adorn” (1999: 3). “Form is static, finished according to Bachelard”, as Edward Kaplan explains; it is “expressive of clear sight and objective agreement on static surfaces” (1972: 11). When Bachelard invokes a ‘weighted’ image, by contrast, he is seeking to articulate a more primal, material contact with elemental substances and with creativity (what he often refers to as the ‘force’ of the imagination). “Forms become worn out faster than forces”, he cautions in Air and Dreams – a line that can be extended, cinematically, to speak to the dynamic form and the elemental force of Denis’s images in the shipyard.

In the port at Busan, the beating of a drum and the blast of the ship’s foghorn unleash what Nancy describes as an “explosive image”, lodged at the film’s “temporal centre” (2014: 152). The inflated ball at the top of the ship unfastens, releasing an outburst of confetti and reams of bright, multi-coloured ribbons into the open air. In a prolonged take, Denis holds on the decorative unspooling that erupts “as if from the film’s heart” (Nancy, 2014: 152). The narratological beginning and end of Trébor’s journey is of utterly no concern here as Denis revels in the extended and poetic presentation of non-human movement and materiality. In another of the film’s aerial shots, the streamers are picked up by sea winds blowing through the port. The camera follows the streamers as they float to the right of the frame while a triumphant fanfare (made by the invisible band) sounds below.

In Denis’s cinema, as Adrian Martin (2006) observes, it is in the sensuous, “moment-by-moment inventiveness of Denis’s style” that “we identify its lyricism”. For Chakali (2005), similarly, the shipyard sequence testifies to the fact that the French filmmaker “prefers to film on the periphery of things rather than in their heart”. By lingering on the periphery, though, Denis “makes reality thrilling” as the world itself “begins to speak” (Chakali, 2005). In The Intruder, cinema’s potential for an elemental poetics finds an appropriately vibrant, non-human and poetic incarnation in the ship’s multi-coloured explosion. Off-screen, the band continues to play as the camera’s focus moves downwards, following the streamers as they unravel. It moves upwards once more, returning to the streamers’ initial point of eruption (the inflated ball and the ship’s metaphorical ‘heart’).

In Bachelard’s view, ‘weighted’ images are achieved by “joining to forms and colours the kinesthetic sensations which are entirely dependent on the material and dynamic imagination” (2011: 118). In the Busan shipyard, Denis creates a prolonged, poetically ‘weighted’ sequence. Through shots of the docked ship at sea, the ship’s streamers, and their flowing movement in the air, elemental substances combine with an imaginative dynamism of film form. There is a material density to the floating ribbons, just as there is an inherent fluidity to the inert ship propeller, aqueously expressed through Denis’s images and sounds of seawater. When the film moves back to the port’s ground level, now strewn with confetti, a multi-layered shot reveals the different widths of the streamers and their intricate entangling (an intertwining that has been caused by the streamers’ palpable movement in the wind). Anonymous workers can be glimpsed, chasing after the ribbons, struggling to gather them all up.

While officials gather in and around the clumps of ribbon, Denis works on the periphery, grounding the ship’s christening in a far more spectacular sight. With a hard cut, the film shifts to a previously unseen, horizontally composed shot. In this brief yet captivating shot, the camera speeds left to right, chasing after the streamers as they rapidly unfurl in the wind, whipping across the backdrop of a bright blue sky/frame (Fig. 3). At the port’s ground level, officials smash a champagne bottle and applaud the ship’s launch. Denis’s focus remains with the lively kinaesthetics of the ribbons, however. The camera drifts away from the human action once more, following the ribbons’ path as they trail along the ground.

Figure 3
Figure 3

Multi-coloured kinaesthetics and the density of the ship’s ribbons in The Intruder. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 3, 2 (2023) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10029

Time and time again, throughout this sequence, the ship’s exploding ‘heart’ is presented as a diffuse, brightly coloured flow. In advancing a Bachelardian take on The Intruder, I find it particularly inspiring that the philosopher often invokes diffuse imagery and motifs (light, water, colour, wind, breath) to capture the imagination as an opening up or a general diffusion of consciousness (an opening up that orients the human/imagining being towards a materiality that is “other than self”) (Kearney, 1991: 103–5).9 Similarly, in the elemental poetics of The Intruder, Denis favours dynamic forces over static forms, aerial and aquatic imagery and the imaginative presentation of a non-human sensuality. Rather than focusing on Trébor in the shipyard, Denis works on the periphery: attending to the shifting, aleatory patterns that the streamers make high up in the air, on the solid ground of the port, within and across the frame.

Situating The Intruder in the context of world cinema, Rosalind Galt singles out the flowing of the ship’s ribbons as being emblematic of an “image of incommensurability” – an image that resists direct interpretation even as Denis’s “pictorial compositions and aestheticized cinematography” contain an implicit “geopolitical meaning and affective value” (Galt, 2011: 304; see also Galt, 2008; Galt, 2014).10 As Galt suggests, The Intruder refuses narrative coherence, proceeding instead through a “series of indelible images” (2011: 302). While my concern is primarily with the Bachelardian resonances of Denis’s film in terms of the film’s elemental poetics, I share Galt’s concern with the sensuous, oblique and non-linear force of Denis’s imagery. Denis’s filming of the ribbons is tangential to Trébor’s global journey (an event “completely extraneous to the film’s plot”) and yet the shipyard sequence “is the film itself; as much as the dogsled driver in the final shots”, as Nancy (2014: 148) insists.

Alert to Denis’s many ellipses and “cut-up sequences”, Nancy identifies the “rhythm of a startled, syncopated thinking” to The Intruder, “a thinking occupied less with […] ideas that [sic] with its movement, with its pace and its displacement” (2014: 148). A “mobile whole, fluid and shifting, forms the basis of the film’s directorial scheme”, he asserts, whereby “every instant is precious, but all instances sink into the general equivalence of their own displacement” (Nancy, 2014: 151–52). Building on Nancy, I would suggest that the film’s many shifting, precious instants are best approached as an image-poem – held together by ‘weighted’ images, by dreamlike shifts in tone, affective atmosphere and environment, and by Denis’s recurrent symbolism. The ship’s exploding-confetti heart, for example, is also the film’s symbolic ‘heart’. The ship’s “exploding heart announces what is to come […] for the protagonist of the film, in his body and in that of his son” (Chakali, 2005).11 For Amy Taubin (2005), also, The Intruder remains Denis’s “most adventurous cinematic poem”. Despite the film’s chronological “jumble of time and space”, Denis’s overarching metaphors and symbols (the dreamlike ‘voyage’, the exploding ‘heart’ and border ‘intrusion’) carry us “inward to the associative regions of the psyche and outward”, towards a world “exceptionally vivid and realistic in its detail” (Taubin, 2005).

Across Denis’s image-poem, there are almost too many vivid details and too many poetically ‘weighted’ images to count. In the Jura, think of the image of a recently extracted human heart, seen glistening red on an expanse of snow or the winding highway where Trébor’s car headlights light up the bodies of refugees, fleeing into the night. In the tropics, think of the group of young male islanders seen digging a grave (whose grave?) while Tahitian elders sing and pass red flowers around a table. Think, also, of the two Tahitian nurses, gliding past a bright blue wall outside of Trébor’s hospital room – the side-profile of their faces calling to mind Paul Gauguin’s paintings of Tahitian women. Drawing on Nancy’s understanding of the image as a “distinctive force”, Galt proposes that meaning in Denis’s film resides “in the experiential force of the image’s visuality” (2011: 302; see also Galt, 2008). That force can be extended into complementary, Bachelardian directions, if we consider Denis’s ‘weighted’ images as a poetic conjoining of the world’s materiality with the creative force of the imagination. Only the “material and dynamic imagination can produce true poems”, as Bachelard (2011: 105) maintains.

Grafting Nature: Oneiric Landscapes and Oceanic Graves

In Water and Dreams, Bachelard proposes that all landscapes contain potential for an “oneiric experience”, if one is alert to the “dreamlike zone of material reveries that precede contemplation” (1999: 4). In The Intruder, an oneiric landscape is cultivated by Denis’s oceanic transitions between shots, by her shots of the sea and the islands and by the film’s persistent blurring of the borders between ‘real’, mnemonic and dreamlike images. In the press book accompanying the film’s international premiere, Denis describes The Intruder as charting an “imaginary territory […] from the northern to the southern hemisphere” (Arte France, 2004: 7). Right from the start of production, Denis conceived sensations of drifting, dreaming and voyaging as essential to the film’s structure, rhythm and form – as much a part of the film’s formal and affective ‘heart’ as the idea of a heart transplant. “Even if it’s the dream of a voyage”, she stated, “it was very important for me that the film offer […] two sides of the globe, the north hemisphere and south hemisphere, as […] two sides of the heart” (Smith, 2005). “All the movement of the film, its kinetics, is about passage”, Nancy (2014: 155) concurs, whether that involves passing through countries, different languages and species (“French, Russian, Korean, Tahitian, dogs”) or through different hemispheres (West to East, North to South). Through oceanic water and seafaring, especially, Denis portrays the film’s transposition to the southern hemisphere as an imaginative journey, steeped in suggestions of death and artifice (Bachelard, 2011: 3).

One of Denis’s first explicit evocations of the ocean occurs in Busan, where the iconography of the “South Seas” begins to seep into the film’s imagery.12 In his hotel room, Trébor is filmed looking over plans for his gift of a Polynesian canoe (an elaborate gift that is never given). A shot of an impressionistic painting appears, featuring a cargo ship at sea. Oceanic waves, a creaking sea vessel and a churning engine can be heard moving through the soundtrack. Footage of an empty freight ship follows, rocking back and forth. The freight ship moves steadily towards a set of islands and low hanging clouds on the horizon. Like Trébor’s forest reverie, it is unclear whether the freight ship is a mnemonic fragment or part of Trébor’s ‘dream’ – a dream that has been shaped by “generations of Europeans who have undertaken […] voyage to the South Seas”, such as with the works of Robert Louis Stevenson or Gauguin (both influences that Denis has cited as points of reference for the film’s oceanic section) (Pesch, 2017: 242). Through the painted ship and the footage of the empty cargo ship, pointed towards the horizon, Denis aligns Trébor with longstanding Eurocentric fantasies about journeying to the “South Seas” as a site of rejuvenation. Due to the saturated colours, the empty ship looks like a lost film fragment, washed up from the past.

In line with Denis’s evocative description of The Intruder as being like “a boat lost in the ocean drifting” (Smith, 2005), a pervasive sense of formal drift and fluidity can be discerned right across the film – even when the imagery of seawater and shipping is not present. De-populated shots of landscapes, cityscapes or weather transitions are used by Denis to environmentally segue from one spatiotemporal site to another in a drifting, dreamlike manner: the bobbing ship at sea gives way to the Busan shipyard, where cries of seagulls fill the air; the Jura cedes to gently moving trees in French Polynesia; a girl’s wrapped, blood-soaked corpse in the wintry Jura transitions to a vista of snowflakes, falling outside Trébor’s hotel window in Busan.

As Chakali (2005) observes, it is characteristic of Denis’s filmmaking to de-territorialise meaning and scatter narrative coherence. The “diegesis does not pre-exist the shots”, he comments. Rather, the shots “come first” and from these shots “the story [then] proceeds […] in a strictly cinematic way” (Chakali, 2005). Via Gilles Deleuze, he identifies the “desert island” as a productive means of thinking through the “oceanic aesthetic” of The Intruder. The Denisian shot is a “windy island”, he writes of the film, with shots situated in the midst of an “oceanic montage” (Chakali, 2005).

Consistent with Bachelard’s thinking on the elements, the oceanic aesthetic of The Intruder can be understood as literally aquatic (shots and sounds of the Pacific Ocean) and imaginative, as it involves a re-shaping of the world through a fluidity of form (Denis’s mercurial connections between shots/locations) and symbolic uses of the sea.13 Through ebb-and-flow shot transitions (oftentimes accompanied by aqueous or windy sound effects), The Intruder can be likened to a narrative “archipelago” whereby meaning emerges from across the “being of the shots in question” (Chakali, 2005).

In the last stages of Trébor’s journey, an aquatically inflected artifice recurs. In another long take, Denis stylises Trébor’s oceanic passage to Tahiti in visibly synthetic terms. As with the ship’s propeller in Busan, the sequence begins with seawater filling the frame. This seawater shimmers and glows with lurid purple and pink hues, however. When Staples’ guitar returns, it is joined by a percussive drumbeat and clashing cymbals. Moving upwards from the purple sea, the camera reveals the sky above the ocean. Shot through with the same pulsating colours, the horizon line and waves blur into each other. Filmed from the deck of a ship that is never seen in reverse, Denis portrays Trébor’s voyage as a near abstract composition and a drifting, almost hallucinatory event. While centred on the sea, the sequence is designed to be clearly and chromatically artificial. The artifice of Trébor’s sea voyage is made all the more evident by Denis’s sudden cut to a grey-toned, photorealistic shot of cranes and construction on Tahiti, putting an end to the passage while Staples’ percussive score rolls on.

For Nancy (2014: 148), this sequence (“a shot of dawn rising over the violet sea of the islands”) is indicative of how Denis “questions, complicates, and suspends the very idea or hypothesis of […] naturalness” in relation to the image.14 From a Bachelardian perspective, Denis’s manipulation of the ocean can be read as a grafting of the natural world. Interestingly, it was through Bachelard’s (1999: 6) meditations on water (the most “truly transient” of the elements) that he came to understand the imagination as a mutable grafting of nature. In Water and Dreams, he goes so far as to suggest that grafting is “the specifying mark of the human imagination” and that “[a]rt is grafted nature” (Bachelard, 1999: 10). Grafting transmits “the richness and density of matter to the formal imagination”, he writes, providing the “material imagination with an exuberance of forms” (1999: 10). Situating the term in a French linguistic context, C. Thiboutot and A. Martinez link Bachelard’s understanding of grafting to “a natural or wild (sauvage) state of being” and to botanical practices of grafting. The imagination-as-grafting involves the “act of cutting, transplanting”, transforming natural objects into human things (Thiboutot and Martinez, 1999: 13).15 In Bachelard’s view, however, “there must be a union of dream producing and idea-forming activities for the creation of a poetic work” (1999: 10, emphasis added).

Grafting the oceanic environs of French Polynesia together with nautical excerpts from Le reflux (itself an adaptation of a Stevenson short story, featuring smugglers in Tahiti), Trébor’s time in the tropics is portrayed as drifting, dreamlike and shot through with cinematic artifice. As Denis recounts, while she and the crew prepared to find and film in the same locations used in Gégauff’s Le reflux, “we were not sure we could use footage of the old film […] we were drifting, too” (Smith, 2005). By way of the same actor (Subor), filmed multiple decades ago, Denis literally grafts the ‘foreign’ body of Gégauff’s film into The Intruder. Standing on the volcanic rocks of the Marquesas Islands, the aged Trébor is filmed looking off-screen before a white ship sails across the frame (seafaring footage, gleaned from Le reflux). By way of a series of eyeline matches, Denis intercuts Trébor’s direct look out at the camera/sea with a youthful Subor (and by implication, a youthful Trébor), sailing on bright blue seas near Tahiti. A desert island replete with swaying palm trees glides by, causing a shift in the film’s score. The dreamy, twanging sounds of a Hawaiian steel guitar begin, conjuring up the South as “a place that is far away […] full of bliss and free of obligations” (Pesch, 2017: 242). The tropical island is followed by a shot of the young Subor (filmed on board the ship, looking towards the island) before Denis returns to Trébor/Subor on the Marquesas Islands, accompanied by the sounds of seawater and oceanic wind.

Through Denis’s grafting of oceanic imagery and sounds with nautical excerpts from Le reflux and the film’s depiction of maritime journeys, tropical islands and storms, The Intruder deconstructs historic fantasies of the “South Seas”. Alongside Gégauff’s film, other key sources of inspiration for the film’s oceanic passages included Denis’s own time in French Polynesia while location scouting, Stevenson’s travelogue In the South Seas and the notebooks and Tahitian paintings of Gauguin. In an interview given in 2020, Denis describes Trébor’s return to the southern hemisphere as “like Stevenson, the writer […] Like Gauguin, thinking that in the Pacific, in the South Pacific […] everything is great. Every moment is fantastic […] a paradise for people from the Northern Hemisphere. And of course it’s fake” (2020). Intriguingly, it was through Gauguin’s work especially that Denis came to filter her own time in the region through the larger, cultural imaginary that surrounds the South Pacific, while refusing to depict “the idea of the South Seas as a place of beauty, gentleness and charm” (Pesch, 2017: 242). “You must know what you want to do with a landscape”, Denis cautions; it is “important not to be hypnotized by the beauty of those islands” (2005). Rather than presenting the tropics as a blissful paradise for Trébor, she re-imagines the islands and their surrounds through “that ominous mauve, that violet-green that [Gauguin] discovered in the light of the islands” (Arte France, 2004: 7). To quote Denis: “I remember when I was location scouting […] at dusk, there was this purple light, really purple […] I felt I was going to die […] then I remember[ed] this purple colour in Gauguin’s painting” (2005).

Footage of the islands, shots of the sea and storms are re-imagined by Denis as being literally shot through with mauve and other purplish hues, indicating the loss of Trébor’s dream, the disappointment of his voyage and his slow passage towards death. While Trébor is on the islands, a news report relays gathering storms and sea swells. Drawing on pre-existing footage from Gégauff’s film once more, Denis cuts to a visibly rocking, topsy-turvy vision of the cargo ship from Le reflux. The smugglers’ laughing, drunken sounds filter through the image (the smugglers from Stevenson’s story get drunk on “the cargo’s load, drifting from island to island”, as Denis explains) (Smith, 2005). The swirling vision of the cargo ship at sea is followed by a shot of the young Subor, seated next to a beached ship in the pouring rain. An eyeline match connects his youthful point of view in the storm to Trébor’s failing heart/breath in the tropics through Denis’s foregrounding of mauve-tinged, stormy skies (another of the film’s many nature-based transitions). Staples’ guitar riff returns, accompanying multiple shots of stirring palm trees on the islands.

As Denis’s oceanic shots recur, they accrue a dreamlike and increasingly deathly significance. “Water always flows, always, always ends in horizontal death”, Bachelard writes in Water and Dreams; for the “imagination, death associated with water is more dreamlike than death associated with earth” (1999: 6, emphasis added). We see the film’s association of the ‘ominous mauve’ of the islands with water and death, morality and dreaming, manifest most clearly towards the conclusion of The Intruder.

Following the reveal of Trébor’s French son (lying dead in a Tahitian morgue with a scarred chest), Denis cuts to the Russian, standing outside the morgue. Through this brief image, the film loops back to and recalls the Russian’s opening line (“Your worst enemies are hiding inside, in the shadows, in your heart”), intimating that it may well be Trébor’s son’s heart that is lodged inside his chest. After the son’s coffin is loaded onto a freight ship, another ‘weighted’ moment ensues in the film, steeped in the sensuality of an artificial ocean. As with Denis’s previous re-imagining of the Pacific as a riot of purple and pink, Trébor’s departure from Tahiti is portrayed as a stylised long take, foregrounding a deathly, purple-tinged sea.

Filmed from the deck of a ship, the camera holds on a darkened island mass, surrounded by immense cloud formations (Fig. 4). For Denis (2005), this elegiac image is akin to a “black island in the dusk, like a tomb with a purple veil”. While evacuated of all human beings, the sound of waves flows through the image. The notes of a trumpet join with the film’s looping guitar track as the camera’s vision bobs up and down, in unison with the rocking ship. Grafting Gauguin’s ominous mauve onto the movement of seawater, Denis’s ‘weighted’ composition sounds out what lies beneath the waves’ surface (the suggestion of an oceanic death). Denis’s funereal imagination of the last stage of Trébor’s journey is then affirmed in the next shot: a coffin aboard a ship, drifting out at sea.

Figure 4
Figure 4

Oceanic graves in The Intruder. Frame grab.

Citation: Studies in World Cinema 3, 2 (2023) ; 10.1163/26659891-bja10029

In The Intruder, tropical seawater does not rejuvenate Trébor – it flows towards death. Denis’s aerial images are rich with other possibilities, however, possibilities that are separate to Trébor. For Bachelard, air is the element that expresses freedom of movement. Air is ‘weighted’ at the same time as it “speaks, illuminates, flies”, he writes (2011: 61). In attending to Denis’s imagining of the elements in The Intruder, I can think of no more fitting a description for Denis’s poetic evocations of the air throughout the film. As with the streamers that are filmed flying through the Busan shipyard or the film’s frenzied shots of running dogs and horses, Denis’s dynamic, aerated images enthral (independent of Trébor’s beginning and end). In the film’s epilogue, the film loops back to France via a snow-ridden Jura with icy winds. In another of Denis’s tellingly aerial moments, the camerawork shifts and shakes – as if the film itself were struggling to keep up with a woman whom Denis dubs the “Queen of the Northern Hemisphere” (Béatrice Dalle).

Having previously refused Trébor’s money, this woman races a dogsled through the snow, carving out a path of movement on her own terms. This is the last of the film’s ‘weighted’ images that Denis bequeaths us. The woman calls on her team of huskies to move faster, faster, faster: “Let’s move it!” In a rocking, almost blurred shot, The Intruder ends with the Queen of the Northern Hemisphere laughing as her dogsled picks up momentum, her hair whipping in the wind. Sometimes, “the escape, the flight” is “the sole concern in voyaging”, as Denis comments, like the poet Mallarmé’s pale Vasco inhaling the smell of nearby land and deciding to maintain his course” (Arte France, 2004: 7). In Denis’s image-poem, aerial images such as these take on a special, imaginative charge – as force-filled moments that are suggestive of aerial freedom, flight and escape from global monsters like Trébor.


  • Arte France (2004). L’Intrus (Press Kit). Venice: 61st Venice International Film Festival.

  • Bachelard, Gaston (1971). The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos. Translated by D. Russell. Boston: Beacon Press.

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  • Bachelard, Gaston (2011). Air and Dreams: An Essay on the Imagination of Movement. Translated by E. Farrell. Dallas: Dallas Institute Publications.

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  • Beugnet, Martine (2007). Cinema and Sensation: French Film and the Art of Transgression. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

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  • Chakali, Saad (2005). À corps ouvert(s). Cahiers du cinéma, April 22.

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  • Pesch, Katrin (2017). Ecologies of Debt in Claire Denis’s L’Intrus/The Intruder (2004). Studies in French Cinema, 17 (3), pp. 23651.

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As Chakali (2005) observes, the intruder is a figure of difference and ontological impurity. Heterogeneity is embedded into the film from its first line of dialogue, with Golubeva’s accent rendering the French language “foreign to our ears”. Thanks to Adrian Martin for supplying me with a copy of Chakali’s wonderful essay. Translations are my own.


The film’s opening voice-over re-works a line from Nancy’s text: “the most vigorous enemies are inside […] lurking in the shadow of my immune system” (2002, 9). For a detailed reading of the connections between Nancy and Denis, see Beugnet (2008).


Bachelard’s complex philosophy of the imagination is not reducible to studies of the ‘elements’ (something that the philosopher is often conflated with). Rather, the elements are Bachelard’s means of illustrating the ‘material’, the ‘dynamic’ and the ‘formal’ aspects of the imagination in action. For an overview of Bachelard’s approach to the imagination, see Kaplan (1972).


In Bachelard’s various studies of the imagination, the philosopher also singles out particular images rather than examining an entire poem.


For Bachelard, the dynamic imagination is closely related to human will. It “charges our desire to form and to cultivate”, to wrest new forms from the world (Kearney, 1991: 107).


When Trébor moves from the Jura onto the elite banking world of Switzerland, for example, Denis once again plays on vaporous, aerial imagery by cutting from a shot of Trébor by the roadside to a de-populated, panoramic shot of mists moving through the Jura forests and mountains.


The global debt that is embodied by Denis’s ‘Man with No Heart’ is nothing less than that of “capitalist globalization”, as it exacts a “human cost” from the East and the South in order to extend the “lives of the wealthy in the North” (Chakali, 2005: fn. 9).


In addition to the film’s sons (French and French-Polynesian), Chakali is referring here to a character known as the “wild child” (Lolita Chammah) as an innocent daughter. She is assassinated in Trébor’s place after taking temporary refuge in his home in the Jura.


According to Richard Kearney, the Bachelardian imagination is always bi-directional. It involves “a centrifugal exodus towards things and a centripetal return to the self”, opening the human up to “discoveries of the self in matter” and to the non-human world (Kearney, 1991: 103–5).


For Galt, Denis fosters an opaqueness of film form that is inherently political. Films such as The Intruder resist “liberal narratives of the individual” and “the kind of form that would produce a smooth success in global capitalist terms”, even within global art cinema circuits (Galt, 2014: 104–5).


Like Chakali, Beugnet points to the importance of patterning, especially in terms of how Denis’s images “form patterns that echo across the film” (2008: 45). For example, the flower crown worn by various characters in the Jura (including Trébor’s French son) re-surfaces in the form of a yellow-and-white headdress, worn by a supermarket clerk in Tahiti and in the traditional headdresses of the region.


As Pesch details, the site of the “South Seas” is both a real, geographic place and an ideation. On the film’s “South Seas” imaginaries, see Pesch (2017).


In conceptualising Denis’s filmmaking and The Intruder as being ‘oceanic’, Chakali (2005) draws critical inspiration from Deleuze’s “Desert Islands”, arguing for a dialectics of the emerged (visible) and submerged (hidden). For Chakali, Denis’s non-linear editing parallels the ‘real’ scattered islands of French Polynesia.


For a reading of this image via Nancy’s concept of ‘ecotechnics’, see McMahon (2014: 14).


The authors invoke the French term “sauvageon” which names the natural state of a branch or tree as it exists prior to being grafted (Thiboutot and Martinez, 1999: 13). To my mind, this interpretation is too weighted towards the human. In Bachelard, the imagined image is a human and non-human encounter, akin to a plant that “needs earth and sky, substance and form” (1999: 3).

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