Internal Journey: a Cinematic Elaboration of Philosophical Concepts in Claire Denis’ L’Intrus

von Pedro Mora-Madriñán

In an interview after a screening of L’Intrus, the filmmaker Claire Denis compared her film to a “boat lost in the ocean drifting.”1 She recalled how, during a discussion following the screening, a confused member of the audience had demanded that she explain, in “plain language,” what the film was “about.” The viewer was offended, Denis explained, probably because he thought that it was a “very arrogant film,” and that the director and her team “didn’t care whether people understood.” As Denis told the interviewer, this feeling of frustration, of failing to understand, had been a frequent response to her films: “I think in a way people expect so much of a film, so many answers, that they are very much afraid of letting themselves drift.”2


As stated in the credits, L’Intrus was inspired by the autobiographical essay of the same title by French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy. However, while Nancy’s text focuses mainly on a personal experience—his heart disease, the heart transplant, and his subsequent recovery—, the action of the film seems to drift from this account, pushing the story into an entirely different direction and making it difficult to recognize the direct relation between the two. The following essay will expand on this relation, analyzing how L’Intrus challenges the very idea of the film “adaptation” of a text, and calling attention to the complex relation between the written and the cinematic expression of ideas. In this way, rather than merely adapting the action of the text, the film serves as an audiovisual reimagining and elaboration of the philosophical concepts behind it.


Nancy’s text mainly focuses on his body and on the medical proceedings, and the narration resembles a meditation or an inner monologue taking place almost exclusively in interiors—inside the hospital, inside the house, or inside the body. On the other hand, L’Intrus (which in this essay will refer to Claire Denis’ film) is set mainly in exteriors: it presents the journey of Louis Trebor, a sixty-eight year old man who goes looking for a long-lost son and for a new organ to replace his ailing heart, and the action takes place on various locations including the French countryside, Swiss and Korean cities, and the Tahiti coastline. So how is the film related with the text?

Instead of dealing with the particular elements of the story, L’Intrus focuses on the ideas and concepts examined by it, and reimagines them visually. The text, as Nancy describes it in the short essay “L’Intrus selon Claire Denis,” consists mainly of a “brief reflection on what a heart transplant can represent in regard to a contemporary conscience of identity.”3 The film, on the other hand, elaborates on this reflection, both through its visual rendition, as well as through its interaction with Denis’ own reflection on identity. The relation between the film and the text, as Nancy explains, is not the “natural” relation of an adaptation (as in a plain shift of medium or setting). It is rather a relation “without evidence of parentage” which “owns everything to its symbolic elaboration.”4 In other words, the film is an elaboration of the ideas and concepts handled in the text, actively appropriating them and taking them in a new direction. As Nancy points out, “Claire Denis did not adapt my book, but she adopted it.”5


If Nancy’s text is characterized by its interiority, as a reflection about the subject and identity taking place inside his own body, L’Intrus is striking for its apparent exteriority and physicality. In L’Intrus, Denis favours visual elements over traditional modes of storytelling such as dialogue, psychological realism, and scenic continuity. During the interview, Denis refers to the “metaphysical” aspects of the text as being too complex to treat in a “realistic story,”6 and her favouring of visual elements serves as a way of elaborating on the text’s concepts in film, as opposed to written or spoken language. As Damon Smith points out in his interview with Denis, the filmmaking comes close to a “purely cinematic aesthetic,” in which present moments blend with dream images, memories, and references to literature and other films.7 This gives her filmmaking style a distinctly pictorial or even musical quality, where the camera––lingering on objects and sceneries, and accentuating its presence through the slight bouncing of the frame––seems to be painting rather than narrating the action.

The favouring of visual elements in the film might seem to make the characters look remote and inaccessible, but this approach also serves as a way to illustrate what Denis calls the “absolute subjectivity of [Nancy’s] text.”8 The blending of the action with images of landscapes, dreams, and memories conveys the sense, as Denis points out, that they were “generated in [the protagonist’s] mind.”9 As Michel Trebor should come to represent the “heart and flesh of the film,” these images could be read as a visual stream of consciousness, where Michel isn’t the object of the image, but rather its “enunciating subject.” The visual style thus reflects the concept of the subject which stands at the center of Nancy’s text: “This ‘I’ is precisely the question, the old question: what is the enunciating subject? Always foreign to the subject of its own utterance; necessarily intruding upon it, yet ineluctably its motor, shifter, or heart.”10 In this way, the film portrays Nancy’s idea of the contradiction of the self by placing Michel both as a visible intruder in and as the hidden heart of the images.


A striking aspect of the relation between the film and the text lies in their different approaches to space: between the interiority of the text and the exteriority of the film. While Nancy’s text confines the narration to his reflections and reminiscences about his heart disease, taking place almost exclusively within his own body, the film follows the main character through France, Korea, and Tahiti, where the action takes place mainly in exteriors. However, the book might also entail a sense of “adventure”, in which the heart transplant serves as a sort of journey in search for a solid idea of the self. The idea of an internal journey is evident when Nancy describes the aftermath of the transplant: “One emerges from this adventure lost. One no longer knows or recognizes oneself: but here these words no longer have meaning. Very quickly, one is no more than a slackening, floating strangeness.”11


The film, on the other hand, places the action outside and approaches the characters from a distance. The film takes place mainly in exteriors, whether in the mountains of France or at the beach in Tahiti, or rather, the concepts developed in the text are “turned to the outside.”12 The visual style, with the frequent images of landscapes and the restrained observation of the characters, gives the sensation of distance from the action, where, as Nancy writes in his essay, “the interiority is reduced to be assumed, never presented or accesible.”13


The film doesn’t seem to clarify much about the character of Michel or about his past. But at the same time, it seems to be more concerned with illustrating his state of mind, than with explaining it. Reading the images as if they were “generated in [Michel’s] mind” leaves the interiority of the character to be “assumed”, constantly present, but never clarified. As Nancy wrote in the conclusion of the text, in withdrawing to an infinite distance, the self, the “most absolutely proper ‘I’”, subsides into an intimacy more profound than any interiority: “The truth of the subject is its exteriority and excessivity: its infinite exposition. The intrus exposes me, excessively.”14


1 “L’Intrus: An Interview with Claire Denis”, Damon Smith, in Senses of Cinema, Issue 35, April 2005.

2 Senses of Cinema.

3 “L’Intrus selon Claire Denis”, Jean-Luc Nancy, in Lettres de la Magdelaine: Littérature-philosophie-arts-psychanalyse, 4 May 2005.

4 “L’Intrus selon Claire Denis”.

5 “L’Intrus selon Claire Denis”.

6 Senses of Cinema.

7 Senses of Cinema.

8 Senses of Cinema.

9 Senses of Cinema.

10 L’Intrus, p. 2.

11 L’Intrus, 11.

12 “L’Intrus selon Denis”.

13 “L’Intrus selon Denis”.

14 L’Intrus, 13.