Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Narrative Seme

L'Intrus wears its obtuseness on its sleeve, so it's not a stretch to posit that the film is as much
“about” the confusion in watching as it is about a putative narrative. Another way of saying this is that the film is a narrative that's also an experiment in narration. It's a tough (impossible?) narrative to parse out fully, and I cannot claim any special insight. What I'm tying to figure out – and I'd love to hear what others see – is how exactly the narrational experiment works. After all, it seems that L'Intrus is less capricious in its storytelling than in a rigorous presentation of information that induces confusion (among other responses) in the spectator.

The rigor, I suspect, lies in the heritage of the art cinema in L'Intrus as well as Denis's departures from art cinema. Like the art cinema, L'intrus plays with ambiguous presentation of narrative events. Unlike art cinema, it suggests that a coherent narrative exists behind the storytelling, that we are watching events excerpted and condensed to the straining point of comprehensibility. In this, the narration relies extensively on ellipsis and secondarily on the possibility that an abrupt cut signals not the usual ellipsis but flashforward, flashback, or subjective material (dreams?). The following shot sequence seems typical:

On one hand these seem to fall neatly into scenes (continuous time-place chunks of narrative): shots 1-2 end scene A (Hong Kong party), the last shot begins scene C (boat ride to Tahitian isle), and the ones in between comprise scene B (flight to Tahiti). On the other hand, the demarcation into scenes presents problems. First, while we as viewers of art and postclassical films are used to the "shock cut" transition to a new scene, all of the transitions in L'Intrus proceed the same way. That is, they lack the conventional "punctuation" signaling a scene transition (type of edit + timing of the edit in relation to the completion of screen action). The only way the spectator can create "scenes" out of the shots in L'Intrus is to recognize common characters and settings - they/we lack the cues in the editing. In art films, transition punctuation can be avoided selectively (one of my favorite examples is the shock cut in Il Posto from the New Year's party to solemn office) but is rarely ignored for the entire film.

Second, the scenes above cohere in space-time but aren't scenes as we often understand them. In a classical film, action is concentrated in scenes so that the action between scenes is insignificant. The above example would seem to follow this practice: it is not narratively important to see Louis leave Hong Kong, arrive at the airport, catch a cab from the Tahitian airport to the boat, etc. Yet, often the narratively significant action does take place between scenes.

The scene in which Louis wraps up the dead body is a case in point...

We do not know what becomes of the body, who the dead man is, how or why he ended up on Louis's property. (Tell me if I'm missing something!) In an art film or a post-classical puzzle film, this kind of enigma could be evoked only to be answered later one - the puzzle film, in fact, is defined by the tidy-ness in which it answers these enigmas. But without such resolution, shots and scenes like these function as pure, floating narrative semes, basic building blocks of narrative information that never actually build into anything.

Forgive me if I'm belaboring the obvious; I'm trying to articulate why I find the film so difficult and alluring. I'm certainly curious what others make of the film and its narrative stategies.


Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


I agree with your separation of The Intruder from the traditions of Western art cinema, and specifically from the "puzzle film." The puzzle film is an intentional riddle; The Intruder is only puzzling to those that wish to see it as puzzling, that try to apply some pre-existing structure--not only a structure of film construction, but a structure of looking at the world and giving importance to certain events.

The Intruder has always seemed untethered to me. Specifically, it's untethered to the notions (narrative, detail, "transcendence") of importance that we use to look back and analyze events and experiences. There's something about it that's free but not "loose."

We can say that L'Eclisse marks the birth of the key themes of 1990s and 2000s art cinema--films roughly contemporary to The Intruder. It is the moment at which cinema shows us that we have created a world that is capable of existing without us--the terrifying prospect that humans are no longer needed to perpetuate human culture. From it spring Tsai's architectural framings, which replace the '60s approach of showing a city by showing how people move through it with the idea of showing people as figures occasionally moving through a space. The city becomes the given, the people the exception.

I think that in some ways The Intruder sets up the idea of experience without consciousness. It is no longer concerned with who is experiencing what or why, or the traditional delineations of character and time. It makes it as terrifying in some ways as L'Eclisse, this idea that experience or memory are not completely personal--that we do not have to be aware of something for it to happen, for it to continue happening. As an idea, it seems purely digital.

Anonymous said...


I agree with your thoughts on L'intrus as a demonstration of space or world as given,
indifferent rather than interdependent with human interventions; but could you elaborate a little on the intriguing idea of 'experience without consciousness'?

Anonymous said...


I like the idea of "puzzle film", as if L'Intrus is a type of guessing game, and on the level of narrative intelligibility it seems decidedly as just that.

However, another reading (although related), is that L'Intrus demonstrates the notion of radical deferment or delay. Rather than to consider the narrative as a construction of ambiguity, that being "not knowing what is going on"; deferment functions as an accumulative type of conviction "I will certainly know soon". With such an onslaught of constructive visual and musical signification [Stuart Staples' score is immense I thought] without ever finding a climax, the narrative achieves something compellingly anti-cerebral, that of an truly agitated desire un-quelled.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

When I'm asleep, dreaming, my back is still on the mattress, the back of my head is still on my pillow. I continue to experience these tactile sensations, though I'm not aware of them. As a far as I'm concerned, they make up events that bookend my dream; the narrative of my night goes: the way my bed feels when I'm falling asleep --> my dream --> the way my bed feels when I've woken up in the morning. When I wake up, I hear the sound of my alarm clock, but that doesn't mean that my ears didn't hear the cars passing outside my window all night.

The narrative falling asleep --> dreaming --> waking up is how I'll think back on the night, but there are other unconscious experiences that were part of that night. I think The Intruder in some ways attempts to view life through these unconscious experiences rather than through the narrative focus we ourselves place on them. Similarly, things we normally wouldn't remember when retelling a story (to use the sequence Chris cites: the experience of flying on the plane isn't a conscious part of the sentence "I took the plane from Hong Kong to Tahiti," though it subconsciously bubbles underneath, a sort of vague recollection we ignore to organize a memory) are included. The film, in certain ways, resists the way we traditionally approach our memory and experience, passing over the conscious narrative in favor of attempting to portray a sequence of events in the ways we experience them rather than the way we think about those experiences.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


OK, I see now. L'Intrus is a great film for that type of reading, the full promotion of the subliminal to the fore of the narrative. It seemed for a moment, that I had some kind of phenomenological misunderstanding; not the sort that I come across that often I might add.

Thanks for reminding me why I should really see L'Eclisse too.