2004Director: Patrice Leconte
Cast: Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Bonnaire
ake Shore Drive was packed with cars all in the city for the weekend air and water show. I had fifteen minutes to get to the theater and the odds were not stacked in my favor. By the time I arrived I was five minutes late. Hopefully there’d be the obligatory commercial and previews, but then again it’s a foreign film in an art theater, and presumably the preview/commercial buffer zone would be far less prominent than for something like the new Exorcist movie.
It didn’t matter anyway, since at that point in time I was certain my level of stress would complicate any possibility of enjoying the film. The gaudy title wasn’t promising—I half expected a sappy melodrama. However, I enjoyed the other films by Patrice Leconte ( The Man on the Train was one of the best films of last year) so a slight possibility remained.
"He's a Nancy Drew fan too? I think I'm in love..."
I made it in literally seconds before the opening credits rolled. I searched frantically for a seat in the darkened theater, removed my notebook and breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. My level of concentration notably shattered, I sat back anticipating a passive reception of the film.
All these personal details would be little more than self-indulgent filler had my intentions been anything other than to paint a picture of how remarkable Intimate Strangers truly is.
Here is a film so beautiful that any amount of personal problems carried into the theater were erased by its lucid brilliance. So well-defined are these characters that I could even forgive a superfluous scene involving one character dancing in front of a full-length mirror to Midnight Hour.
The story, which at first seems contrived, works in a far more subtle manner than one would expect. A woman scheduled for an appointment with a therapist accidentally knocks on the wrong door and ends up divulging her most personal secrets to a tax consultant, of all things. The consultant is William Faber (played by Fabrice Luchini). At first he doesn’t realize that she’s in the wrong place. As he tells his ex-girlfriend later on, many of his clients reveal personal secrets to him. It’s a way of explaining their financial situations sometimes.
By the time he realizes that this woman thinks he’s a therapist, he appears too timid to confess the truth to her, so he allows her to schedule another appointment. When she returns, he resolves to set things straight and apologize for the mix-up. However, upon her second visit he finds himself unable to reveal the truth. This happens because, as he explains, he couldn’t find the proper moment to tell her. From his body language, however, we suspect another reason William doesn’t tell her the truth.
We don’t know it yet, but William is a lonely man. His girlfriend recently dumped him and is now starting a relationship with a bodybuilder who finds pleasure in belittling William in front of her. His other clients are strictly business, and as they discuss financial matters with him, there’s a distance in his eyes. His job seems less a vocation than it does a sorry inheritance (he took his father’s place in the same office in which he had worked and lived previously). This woman’s mistake becomes the only thing worthwhile in his life. We can speculate that it’s the first authentic conversation he’s had in years, which is ironic since it is shrouded in deception, albeit unintentional.
"My office has many leather-bound books and smells of rich mahogany."
The woman is Anna. She’s having marital problems that go far beyond simple bickering. As she continues to reveal more about her marriage the clearer it becomes that she’s in a rather unhealthy situation. Her husband doesn’t touch her anymore and has in fact instructed her to find another lover provided that she tells him every detail of the affair later on.
William offers her advice but struggles greatly since he has no idea how to handle the situation. When Anna doesn’t arrive for her next appointment he attempts to track her down by visiting the therapist’s office down the hall (the one she was meant to go to). Her would-be therapist, Dr. Monnier, cannot reveal her personal information even after William explains to him the entire situation.
Eventually Anna returns, somewhat furious. She has discovered the truth about William. He apologizes, expecting her to storm out. Instead she schedules another appointment. She returns regularly and they soon become deeply involved, not sexually, but in a personal way neither of them seems capable of with anyone else.
The film is brilliantly acted by its two stars, particularly Luchini. His role is less defined by dialogue than it is by facial expressions and body language. The way he communicates such an unfathomable loneliness without ever admitting it verbally is nothing short of stunning.
In addition, Leconte’s direction enhances rather than distracts from the themes of his film. He utilizes much hand-held camera work, which is less gimmicky than it is in many lesser films since his choices of shots reveal a clear artistic agenda. The jerky camera work becomes synonymous with Anna’s world, whereas Leconte prefers a steady, locked down camera when examining William’s personal rituals.
It’s rare these days to have a director so in touch with his characters. In Man on the Train the nature of the story, which dealt with two men who envy each other’s lives, required an enormous depth in character development. Likewise, in this film, without the expansive character development, we’d be left with material that could just as easily be substituted for a contrived romantic comedy.
Instead, we become so familiar with them that their lives extend beyond the run time of the film. Indeed, the end credits suggest a certain endlessness to the film’s story. Though the plot exists in a heightened fictional environment, its characters come from an undeniable reality in which we imagine more than the film reveals to us. That’s the sign of a brilliant director—one who allows his characters secrets of their own. Anna and William confess much to each other, but it’s the things they don’t say that really matter.