A vagina rests in the center of the frame. The camera gradually pulls back to reveal a woman lying nude on a beach. Her breasts are small and her short hair sparkles in the sunlight; she looks like a classical Greek goddess. She rises and walks toward the ocean, the camera dollying effortlessly around her to reveal an unexpected visitor: two large African men washing up on the beach, like the offspring of the sea. One of them stands tall, his muscles glimmering with reflected light, and gazes at the woman, his expression one of confusion and longing. Neither speaks, but each understands the other.
So begins The Invader, the debut feature film from Belgian filmmaker Nicolas Provost. I first saw it on a whim at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2011, where it blew me away and promptly vanished, only to be released in theaters abroad. Now, two years later, it’s finally received a VOD release in the U.S. courtesy of Vyer Films, and a second viewing confirms it as a mini-masterpiece, a hypnotic exploration of identity, sex and class politics set against the backdrop of urban anomie.
The narrative follows Amadou (Isaka Sawadogo), an illegal African immigrant struggling to survive in Belgian society as an outsider. He becomes infatuated with a wealthy businesswoman (Stefania Rocca), but their affair gradually turns sinister as she realizes he’s not who he claims. The film touches on ideas that Provost previously explored in his short film Exoticore, which also starred Sawadogo as an immigrant seeking connection, but The Invader is more visually accomplished and thematically dense. Is Amadou a victim of socio-economic institutions, forced into poverty and deceit just to scrape by, or is he a manipulative predator looking to take what he hasn’t earned? The answer may be a bit of both, and Provost refuses to be judgmental, letting his camera follow Amadou through the streets as he struggles to prove his worth to the people around him. The audience becomes complicit in his alienation; we’re curious in him as an onscreen artifact, but we remain forever distant.
The Invader prizes atmosphere and character over plot, and Provost wisely lets his visuals speak for him, often communicating more with music and carefully-crafted imagery than dialogue. From the opening shot, which references the Courbet painting “The Origin of the World,” to its final striking image, it’s clear we’re witnessing the growth of a true cinematic artist. Each shot is so meticulously framed, every detail so carefully composited, that The Invader feels more like a sculpture than a film. It occasionally dips into languidness, but even the moments that drag feel like an extension of Amadou’s malaise; he spends most of his time waiting, alone, uncertain how to proceed.
Isaka Sawadogo carries the film, delivering one of the most nuanced and magnetic performances of the year. He manages the difficult task of expressing volumes through only his eyes, yet always keeps his character’s true motivations hidden. Rocca also shines as Agnes, the object of his affections, stealthily communicating both curiosity in this mysterious stranger and a growing uncertainty. Agnes is just as confused as Amadou, drawn to that which she cannot contain, and their tragic relationship reveals just as much about the way the upper class views social outsiders as it does about the frustrated expectations of strangers in a new land.
Amadou spends the film searching for what he witnesses in the provocative opening scene: beauty, acceptance, belonging. Class differences, racial tension, and above all sex (and everything sex represents) fall under the scrutiny of the camera’s eye. Few concrete answers are given. The Invader is one of the best films of the year, and worth seeking out. It’s a work more concerned with the journey than the destination, and when the journey is this mesmerizing, that’s a fine thing.