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Intimate Strangers (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 23, 2021

Intimate Strangers


Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Fabrice Luchini, Michel Duchaussoy, Anne Brochet, Gilbert Melki, Laurent Gamelon, Helene Surgere, Urbain Cancelier, Isabel Petit-Jacques, Veronique Kapoian, Benoit Petre, Albert Simono, Claude Derepp, Aurore Auteuil, Ludovic Berthillot and Sabrina Brezzo.

Screenplay by Jerome Tonnerre.

Directed by Patrice Leconte.

Distributed by Paramount Classics.  104 minutes.  Rated R.

He certainly isn’t a household name like Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino, however French director Patrice Leconte has quietly been putting together one of the most impressive bodies of work in modern cinema. He has made terrific, quirky thrillers (Monsieur Hire), romances (The Hairdresser’s Husband), period pieces (Ridicule) and dramas (The Girl on the Bridge). Last year’s The Man on the Train was one of his best yet, an intense drama about an aging schoolteacher and an aging robber envying each other’s lives.

His latest film is Intimate Strangers. As always in Leconte’s films, it has elements of comedy, drama, action, sex, deceit and most of all, Leconte’s pet theme, missed opportunities. His films are usually about people who have repressed their desires finally trying to force themselves out of the safety of their lifestyles and into adventures that may or may not be good for them. While this is not Leconte’s best film (it’s a little too reminiscent of the even better Monsieur Hire), it is still much better than most of the stuff being made in Hollywood.

Intimate Strangers starts with a deceptively simple premise. William Faber (Fabrice Luchini) is a middle-aged tax attorney who is stuck in a rut. He lives in the same apartment he has his entire life. He works the same job he always has (and his father did before him.) His wife has left him for a gym instructor. He is jealous, angry and miserable with his life. 

Everything changes, however, seemingly by accident. A beautiful woman named Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) walks into his office, mistaking it for the psychiatrist’s office down the hall. By the time Faber realizes the error, she is sharing intimate details about her personal life with him. He is torn, he tries to explain the mistake, but he is also fascinated by what she is telling him.

In a lesser director’s hands, this gimmicky mistaken identity plot could be played like a rerun of Three’s Company. However, Leconte is too talented and too smart to play the situation for broad comedy. He recognizes the humor of the situation. He also realizes the pathos and the desperation that causes these two lonely people to continue their little appointments even when the truth is brought to light. 

He delves into the dangerous corners of the circumstances. What does she get from the relationship? Did she really know what she was doing from the very beginning? Who is the mysterious guy on the motor scooter?  What is the deal with her possibly abusive husband?

Bonnaire, who also starred in Leconte’s similarly voyeuristic late 80s classic Monsieur Hire, is terrific in the role of a woman who has been so bruised by life that it seems she only feels whole when she is being used. And yet, she relishes the sensual power that she has over Faber and it intoxicates her. The complaint that Anna is just a slightly older version of Bonnaire’s Hire character of Alice is a valid one. I would be more bothered by that fact if both characters weren’t so interesting.

Luchini has a sleepy repressed charm in that most French of characters, the cuckolded separated man who is trapped in a prison of his own inactivity. He longs to break free, to experience passion. His chaste (except for the sexual candor in her dialogue) relationship with Anna makes him surer of himself, more willing to take risks, and frankly, more attractive to his ex-wife. He finally lets go of all the old things that have been tying him down and decides to live his life.

He falls in love with Anna, but I am not sure whether it is for her sexual allure, his strong need to save her, or the freedom that she represents to him. It is probably all three of those at the same time. Director Leconte captures their emotional tango, their parry and thrust, in subtle, charming and sometimes just slightly disturbing ways. Intimate Strangers shows how conversation and revelation can be much more personal than the sex act itself.  (9/04)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2004  All rights reserved. Revised: October 3, 2004.

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