Appellate Judge Rob Lineberger says that accountants get all the chicks.
"Can't we just kiss next time?"—William, to his ex-girlfriend's sporty new boyfriend after shaking hands
Patrice Leconte is an accomplished French director who is renowned for French director sorts of things. He produces multilayered, character-driven, dialogue-intensive films, full of cerebral characters who have varied difficulties relating to their fellow humans. You'll never accuse Leconte of delivering a mindless action film. Fluff is not his forte. Simplicity is not his style.
Leconte aptly maintains French cinema's reputation; to figure out if you'll like his work, simply mull over the term "French cinema" and see whether you get expectant goosebumps or wrinkles in your forehead. Though Leconte can be insufferable, his work is approachable. Films such as Man on the Train and Girl On the Bridge haven't made him famous per se, but they have forced the world to keep an expectant eye on his body of work. It won't surprise anyone if time looks favorably on his films, or if he produces an undeniable modern classic.
Confidences trop intimes, or Intimate Strangers, is not likely to be that film. Though crafted with care and driven by sophisticated performances, Intimate Strangers is just unfocused enough to tether it to the middle of his filmography. It is not a Leconte masterpiece, but Intimate Strangers is still an engaging film that provides a refreshing alternative to American potboilers.
Facts of the Case
Intimate Strangers will probably be incrementally better if you don't know the basic premise. But even full disclosure of the plot doesn't give much away, because the bulk of the movie takes place in glances and camera movements.
William (Fabrice Luchini, a Parisian actor who is accustomed to living at the top of the cast list) is a financial analyst who would make Freud break into a knowing smile. William lives in the same flat he was born in, doing the same job his father did, with the same clients, same secretary (who may or may not be his mother), and same time-darkened leather desk accouterments. William wears a perfectly tied tie every day, and he has perfected the reflective pose that indicates to his clients that he is listening. From the books to the teacups, we get the feeling that William is intimately familiar with every object in the house.
One day William receives an unusual new client. Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire, a French actress who is accustomed to living at the top of the cast list) enters his office, sits down, and breathlessly unburdens herself of deeply personal concerns, such as the details of her husband's sexual hangups and her desires as a woman. Before William has a chance to recover, Anna finishes and casually mentions that they're on for next week as she waltzes out the door.
It belatedly dawns on William that Anna has him confused with Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy, The Widow of Saint-Pierre), the therapist down the hall. He seeks Dr. Monnier's advice, and quickly finds himself the subject of intense psychological scrutiny. A second opinion from his ex-girlfriend, Jeanne (Anne Brochet, The Story of Marie and Julien), confirms that William is protesting his innocence a little too loudly.
What begins as an innocent mixup soon blossoms into a complex, volatile relationship between two Intimate Strangers.
Some films are "big." They have ambitious aspirations, large sets, epic casts, sweeping themes, or other telltale signs of Big Cinema. These films can be successful, in which case we're inclined to call them masterpieces. They usually fall short, but are still entertaining through sheer spectacle. At worst, Big Films are unmitigated disasters of special effects.
Intimate Strangers is a Small Film, as the word "intimate" in the title suggests. Its world is mostly a suite of apartment-offices, with an occasional voyage into town or to the beach. Its cast is small as well, though carefully selected. And its themes are as intimate as can be. Small Films are just as likely to be hailed as masterpieces, but often they have humble goals.
The goal in this case is to depict true intimacy. The road Leconte paves to get us there is rocky, full of false starts and cul-de-sacs. By the time we get to the end of that road, the view sneaks up on us. We don't fully grasp the destination while we're in the film, but when it arrives it is unmistakable.
Intimate Strangers thrives on the byplay between Fabrice Luchini and Sandrine Bonnaire. Each actor inherently grasps their role in the relationship and makes it seem organic. We can fully accept that William has been stifled in the dust of his flat for decades, believe that Anna is the freshest thing to enter his life in that time. We live most with William, watching subtle changes take place in his environment as Anna's influence in his life grows.
William is a readily digestible character, although Luchini imbues him with enough depth to keep him interesting. Anna is less fathomable. Part of that is her womanly mystique, the undeniable eroticism of the unknown. Leconte dwells in the tenuous early stages of the relationship, drawing out each revelation and making us beg for resolution (or at least definition) of who William and Anna will become. But Anna's mystery is at least partially due to uncertain tone; Intimate Strangers moves from psychological suspense to love-triangle thriller to love story without much warning. We are never sure quite what we're supposed to be questioning or rooting for. Had there been just a hint of a stronger flow, a more defined central conflict, Intimate Strangers might have been more cohesive and satisfying.
Of course, one of the joys of foreign cinema, French in particular, is that nothing is spelled out for you. The French are astute observers of human emotion, and French films such as this one expect a certain amount of sophistication from the viewer. This might be why some find French films overly convoluted. In the case of Intimate Strangers, the uncertainty has mixed results. On one hand, situations are created that have no absolute interpretation, which leads to more personal takes on the material. For example, I've read several opinions that William purposefully kept his accountant status hidden from Anna so that she would keep coming. But enough evidence exists to support the idea that William was truly confused and that he did make a couple of earnest attempts to enlighten Anna (attempts that were thwarted by Anna's own inability to listen). On the other hand, the uncertainty gives Intimate Strangers a wishy-washy vibe that leaves the viewer wondering where to look next.
The marketing for Intimate Strangers is quick to point out the frank sexual dialogue, as though the film is rife with sordid highbrow erotica. There is subtle and pervasive eroticism in the film, but it is not particularly sensual or warming. Leconte plays on the expected romantic orbit, dangling the usual romantic milestones in front of the audience like a carrot. Yet the central dynamic is not about physical affection, but emotional connection and the power of simply listening to another human being. Don't expect a softcore tone poem.
Curious audio decisions have me shaking my head in bewilderment. Environmental sounds of children laughing and playing outside are repeated several times in the film. Yet there were never any children shown, nor was a potential playground area ever indicated. I cannot decide whether Leconte reused canned outdoor noises to suggest a bigger world offscreen or if that specific sound effect of nonexistent children is some metaphor that feeds into the central message. My confusion on this point may reveal ignorance, but as a critic I'm going to point my finger back at the film and say "elucidate." I can fully endorse the soundtrack, which was uplifting at the right times and infectiously suggestive the rest of the time.
Intimate Strangers could not function without the precise camerawork of Eduardo Serra. From the extreme low-angle shot that introduces Anna as a pair of shoes to the slight tremor in the camera that reinforces Anna's discomfort in the office, we gain insights that are purely due to cinematography. Serra uses both impossibly tight shots and deep focus to suggest the psychological realities of William's building. The palette of the film is noticeably subdued, mostly greenish grays and browns. The color temperature shifts to cool when men are onscreen and warm when women take precedence. There are many creative visual touches that reinforce the themes of the film. The final overhead shot is particularly effective at relaying Leconte's final point.
Paramount has delivered an uninspired treatment of Intimate Strangers. The subtitles are burned in, which is a travesty for those who like to take in composition or listen to the film in its native language. There is a buttload of persistent previews before the main menu, which is highly irritating. There are no extras. The video transfer is capably handled, with very little edge enhancement, decent detail, and reasonable contrast. Colors are quite muted, even beyond the color decisions made in the films, and there is a continual skirmish with blurred focus in the foreground. The sound is mixed competently, although the dynamic range isn't much to "ahh" about.
Though it wallows in Freudian symbolism and walks unsteadily, Intimate Strangers delivers an engaging intellectual experience. Nuanced acting anchors a plot with many interpretations. Intimate Strangers isn't a crowd-pleasing, rousing sort of film, but it may be just the antidote you're looking for if you appreciate subtlety and unforced humor over explosions and sight gags.
His honor needs to keep Anna for further questioning until a determination of her character can be made. William is free to go.
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