Anna Delambre (Sandrine Bonnaire, "Monsieur Hire") seeks a psychologist to discuss her rather bizarre marital situation. The young woman, who has trouble reading and telling left from right, knocks on the wrong door on her way to the office of Docteur Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy, "Amen"). Instead she becomes the last appointment of the day for tax accountant William Faber (Fabrice Luchini, "On Guard"), who initially assumes he's been engaged to handle a divorce. William becomes entranced by the troubled young woman, though, and has difficulty correcting her mistake. When she discovers it on her own, her confessions begin to take even stranger twists that turn Anna and William into "Intimate Strangers."
Cowriter (with Jerome Tonnerre)/director Patrice Leconte ("Man on the Train," "Monsieur Hire") revisits themes from his 1989 film "Monsieur Hire," but where that film was lonely and dark, "Intimate Strangers" steadily progresses into the light. Sandrine Bonnaire, who last worked with Leconte on "Hire" is wonderfully mysterious, but it is Luchini, the '"Hire" apparent,' who steals the show.
Leconte shows a devilish side immediately, when Anna arrives at Monnier and Faber's gloomy office building. She's admitted by a landlady intent upon a television drama where a woman tells her husband that she'd rather confess her secrets to her priest than to him. Faber is flummoxed by Anna's frank admissions regarding her husband Marc's (Gilbert Melki, "The Trilogy") lack of desire for her and tongue tied when she books her next appointment. He takes his quandary to his ex, Jeanne (Anne Brochet, "The Story of Marie and Julien"), who obviously counsels fessing up, but the next meeting only drags Faber deeper into Anna's spell. He visits Monnier for advice (and, most humorously, is charged 120 Euros for the session).
Anna discovers the mixup and is furious with Faber, but she returns and continues her tale of a husband who encourages her to take a lover, a role Faber clearly would love to fill. Yet when he asks if she's afraid she might fall in love, her response implies rejection.
Leconte doesn't shy away from the dark here, particularly when the disturbing Marc enters the picture, but lighter comedy is never far at hand. The character of Monnier is an amusing advisor, recouping his lost income from Faber even as he observes that they are both in the business of deciding what to declare and what to hide. "Intimate Strangers" turns the old 'death and taxes' saw inside out via the psychological pairing of sex and death (note how Monnier screws a pencil within a sharpener as he prods and pokes Faber in his office). Faber's character is seduced by Anna just as he is being emasculated by his ex-lover Jeanne, who shows off her new muscle bound boyfriend Luc (Laurent Gamelon, "The Closet") while remaining intellectually attached to William. Clucking disapprovingly over the closed door proceedings is Faber's secretary Madame Mulon (Hélène Surgère, "Le Divorce," strongly suggesting a Gallic Gena Rowlands), a mother figure whose former 'dishiness' once tempted William's father in the same office.
The voyeuristic theme from "Hire" is repeated time and time again here, as Faber listens to Anna's secrets and even resorts to following her. It is a final, ironically orchestrated bit of spying that makes William stand up and call Anna's bluff.
Luchini is fabulous, a man who doesn't realize his downtrodden state until he is mistaken for someone else, yet he is never passive. He's hilarious shooting down the over familiarity of Luc ('Next time, let's kiss OK?') and joyous dancing alone to Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour" in the early stages of the relationship. That dance is touching, too, just as Luchini's silent yearning is. Bonnaire maintains sympathy even when her actions can be interpreted as cruel. She projects the character's path from dark to light, which is also symbolized in gradual changes to hair and costume. Cinematography by the great Eduardo Serra ("Girl with a Pearl Earring") moves the entire film from the dark, drab corridors of Faber's apartment to the literal light of Southern France (production design by Ivan Maussion, "The Man on the Train"). Pascal Estève's ("The Man on the Train") score adds Hitchcockian undertones.
Leconte's ambiguous ending is difficult to decipher, however. The landlady's soap ends with the revelation that the priest is gay and we never do discover the nature of Anna's warped marital situation. Still, "Intimate Strangers" is fully satisfying, the work of a master whose romanticism is never sentimental.
Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) arrives for her first appointment with a psychiatrist but accidentally enters the wrong office. She mistakes tax attorney William Faber (Fabrice Luchini) for the doctor and proceeds to bare her soul to the startled man. He is so taken with the attractive, frank woman that he fails to tell her of the mistake she made. What happens next changes the lives of both in director Patrice Leconte’s “Intimate Strangers.”
Helmer Leconte has always had a Hitchcockian flare in his filmmaking exhibited first, to me, in his his great 1988 film, “Monsieur Flare.” But he has also developed his own vision of film, reflected in such different efforts as “Girl on a Bridge,” “Widow of St. Pierre” and “Man on a Train.” Each of these and other Leconte films I know display the world-class talent of the auteur, even as he pays homage to Hitch.
“Intimate Strangers” is a love story very uniquely told. As Anna tells her woes, William is captivated by her beauty, grace and troubles. Her marriage has fallen on hard times since her husband had a terrible, disabling accident. Since then he has not touched her and wants no intimacy. William is further attracted to Anna when she tells him that her husband, Marc (Gilbert Melki), insists that she have sex with another man.
Leconte and co-writer Jerome Tonnerre nicely draw the complex build of this story of confession, sex, loneliness, compassion and intimacy from the script. Anna goes through her stages, at the start of “Intimate Strangers,” of finally deciding to confide in a professional, learning her confidant is not what she believed, accepting that and continuing her “sessions.” You begin to root for the fastidious, toy-collecting, middle-aged and lonely bachelor, William, who has had the unexpected good fortune of having the alluring Anna thrust into his life. Fabrice Luchini grabs your heart in his portrayal of the outwardly bland but inwardly complex and compassionate – if not downright passionate - man.
Anna, effectively played by Sandrine Bonnaire, who starred opposite Michel Blanc in the director’s “Monsieur Hire,” is a flawed character but, still, one with which you can empathize. As she tells William about her problems we learn that she is complicit in them and the cause of her husband’s handicap. Bonnaire gives nuance to the arc of character (benefited beautifully by costumer Sandrine Kerner) as she opens up to her “doctor,” realizes the foolishness of her error, feels violated and raped by William’s unspoken deception but compelled to continue her unconventional “therapy.” There is always an underlying feeling throughout the film that Anna is never what she seems to be.
While “Intimate Strangers” belongs to Luchini and Bonnaire, Leconte fills the background characters with some very capable actors. William had taken over his father’s tax business and with it his pere’s old secretary (with allusions to maybe something more between employer and employee). Helene Sugere plays Madame Mulon; a taciturn woman who silently observes the unusual and vaguely sexual “appointments” her boss holds every week with Anna, with no tax business performed. Sugere says volumes with her silence and her reproach is palpable, even as she remains loyal to William.
Gilbert Melki gives a quiet, intense and dangerous performance as he confronts William with his belief that the tax attorney is having an affair with his wife. The sparks the take place between William and Marc are almost visible as they duel over Anna. Melki, too, speaks pages by saying little and carries the undercurrent of potential violence. Michel Duchaussoy is perfectly cast as Dr. Monnier, the psychiatrist that Anna first had the appointment, who becomes William’s muse and advisor in helping the woman with her problems. I don’t know if the American Psychiatrist Association would approve of this kind of surrogate psychological treatment but it works here.
Techs are straightforward but done with elegance. Costume is notable on all levels, from well-tailored suits and ties for William to Anna’s every evolving wardrobe which, as her problems come to light and are resolved, takes on provocative and gaily alluring looks. Eduardo Serra (robbed of last year’s Oscar for “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” IMHO) keeps his lens even as he utilizes the tight confines of William’s combination office and home. Serra is not a product of MTV video production and he uses static camera shots to stunning effect, giving the eye time to examine the superbly appointed production design by Ivan Maussian.
Patrice Leconte keeps the air of mystery about “Intimate Strangers” that makes you think you are watching an erotic thriller while it is neither erotic nor thrilling. But, there is a sensual charm that rises from the chemistry between the actors and their masterly performances under Leconte’s steady hand. There are many layers to the film and it is pleasant to see such that allows you to peel away these layers and reveal the heart of what Leconte and company are going for. This should be a must for real film fans, especially those fond of French cinema. I dare Hollywood to try to remake this as an American film. I give it a B+.
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