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The Intruder (1999)
Director: David Bailey
review by Richard Bowden
At an art show, Catherine (Charlotte Gainsbourg) meets Nick (Charles Powell). On the way home she is mugged, he puts her up at his apartment to recover, and the two quickly establish a rapport. They are married and live together in Nick's spacious apartment but, soon, mysterious events start to occur and Catherine feels the threatening presence of Nick's first wife Stella, murdered by an unknown assailant a year or so before.
The Intruder is the second film by London fashion photographer David Bailey (his first, the obscure Who Dealt was made for TV in 1993). Rather ostentatiously, Bailey's still photographs add a touch of class to the somewhat anonymous and cavernous modern interiors in which much of the action takes place. Ironically, this silent clutter of his more successful art, on walls and furniture, makes the weaknesses of his motion picture even more disappointing. Mostly told in a single long flashback as police question the shocked Catherine, this is a scare story that falls short of being really frightening.
As Catherine, actress Charlotte Gainsburg proves simply too weak a presence to make a persuasive narrator of events. Her somewhat tremulous voiceover at the beginning lacks any sense of horror or conviction. Part of the blame can be found in the script, which leaves Catherine's character weak and undeveloped as a victim. As Nick's benighted wife, one feels she is merely a cipher for the terror that the director seeks to impel upon the audience, rather the source of any paranoia herself. What suspense there is in the film springs not so much from her dread of the supernatural, but from the much less interesting enigma of her husband's past romantic life and how it affects the present. Catherine is left adrift, until the audience's only interest in her springs from deciding whether she will finally wind up alive or dead.
The Intruder, despite the quantum mechanics mumbo-jumbo introduced to explain the goings-on, is at heart a ghost story, and Nick's huge apartment in effect the 'haunted house'. (At one point Catherine actually uses candles to light her way in a darkened room). Such narratives rely a great deal upon sustained tension wrought through carefully created atmosphere. In his attempt to manipulate mood, right from the opening scenes, Bailey introduces a solo saxophonist who repeatedly plays a lonely vigil, outside of the main plot and characters. His presence is never logically explained and, with each repetition of this scene, it seems more and more superfluous. In addition, this musician is patently unaffected by the snow, which falls almost continuously outside as events unfold inside.
Whenever we are within sight of a window, inevitably there are thick flakes falling. No doubt the snow intends to suggest a sense of coldness and isolation surrounding the characters. Instead, it draws attention to the set-bound nature of much of the action, quickly becoming a symbol of creative laziness. There are odd moments of genuine menace and danger, indicative of the better film that might have been. Catherine, vainly searching for Rosebud (her cat), for instance, in Nick's vast apartment, or the death of Daisy as Catherine rushes up stairs in answer to her frantic phone call for help. Here, Bailey utilises space and motion effectively, creating dread. Even the final confrontation (shot using an unusual optical smearing technique) is reasonably tense. At too many other points however, matters fall down badly. Particularly ineffective is the role given to a janitor heavy, whose menace, filmed with risible overemphasis by Bailey, appears instead bathetic. "Some things in life are beyond our control," he intones, as if fiddling with the lock on Catherine's door makes him the key to all that transpires (he is not).
Practically all of the action supposedly occurs inside the same apartment building, where most of the characters live. Yet, by the end of the film, we still no real evocation of the building or location, and this poor sense of place is a continuing handicap (perhaps stemming from uncertain location work). Compared to, say, the mise-en-scene demonstrated so successfully by Polanski in Rosemary's Baby, a far more successful tale of terror, the difference is revealing. In Polanski's work, the identification between tension and living space is absolute. In The Intruder this unifying sense of place is palpably missing.
Other plot elements appear, tantalise the audience with their possibilities, and then languish. Nastassja Kinski (the only big name in the cast) who plays Badge, a friend of Nick, who gives Catherine a job. In a couple of scenes together, there is a hint of suppressed lesbianism. The failure to develop Badge as a predatory female, while it might show admirable restraint by the scriptwriters, leaves her character hanging in midair. A similar feeling of underdevelopment attends the idea of twins in the film. Catherine and Jim are introduced to identical twins at the start of the film. Later, Catherine discovers that Nick's first wife Stella was half of a pair of identical twins as well, and visits the surviving sister. And with this intriguing echo, the idea is dropped. But then why introduce it at all?
The coda of the film, which takes place at the conclusion of Catherine's flashback, is predictable. There's no point in spoiling what drama the film still possesses at this point, but needless to say that the resolution - or not - of Catherine's ordeal is hardly original. But that is the trouble with this film: it simply can't deliver enough original terror or suspense to prove memorable. In short, this is an exercise in supernatural terror that should have worked out more.
previously published online, VideoVista #27
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