Erotic Suspense After Mistaken Identity
In Patrice Leconte’s sardonic psychological thriller, ”Intimate Strangers,” Sandrine Bonnaire portrays a Gallic answer to one of Alfred Hitchcock’s sleek blond women of mystery. Imagine the Grace Kelly of ”Rear Window” or the Kim Novak of ”Vertigo” sprawled seductively on an analyst’s couch, smoking cigarettes and confiding her sexual frustration to a repressed, wide-eyed shrink who is obsessed with her.
”Intimate Strangers,” directed by Mr. Leconte from a screenplay by Jérôme Tonnerre, establishes its mood of playful erotic suspense in the first 10 minutes and sustains its cat-and-mouse game between therapist and patient through variations that are by turns amusing, titillating and mildly scary.
The film’s running joke is its revelation at the outset that the shrink, William Faber (Fabrice Luchini), is not really a therapist but a repressed, lonely tax accountant whose good friend and recent romantic partner, Jeanne (Anne Brochet), has left him for a gym rat (Laurent Gamelon). Ms. Bonnaire’s troubled character, Anna, has accidentally strayed into the wrong office, on the same dark floor where the psychoanalyst she intended to consult, Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy), practices a few doors away.
Before William has a chance to correct Anna’s mistake, she begins pouring out the story of her dysfunctional marriage, and he finds himself too intrigued to come clean. As he points out later, a tax accountant’s relationship to a client parallels a psychotherapist’s. Both professions involve knowing personal secrets and making decisions about what to reveal and what to hide.
”Intimate Strangers” takes place less in the real world than in the realm of voyeuristic fantasy — in other words, in the realm of film itself, which allows us to ogle beautiful people under the cover of darkness. And Ms. Bonnaire is something to ogle. The film, which opens today in New York, presents longing as a kind of romantic science fiction in which the what-if? is risk free, and it is more delicious to imagine a transcendent passion than to engage in the messy, potentially disappointing mechanics of actual consummation.
Another variation on the same idea drives the recent and wonderful Italian film ”Facing Windows,” in which attractive neighbors who have surreptitiously observed and desired each other finally connect and face reality. Both films involve a lot of staring out of windows and gazing at reflections.
”Intimate Strangers” is also a riff on the Henry James novella ”The Beast in the Jungle,” whose protagonist spends his life frozen in the expectation of a remarkable destiny that never materializes. Midway in Anna’s therapy, William, whose inability to respond to her subtle romantic signals recalls the paralysis of James’s protagonist, lends her the novella. On returning it, she complains about its sad ending.
A dumpy, slightly effeminate middle-aged man with scared saucer eyes, Mr. Luchini’s William (who secretly dances around his apartment to Wilson Pickett’s ”In the Midnight Hour”) is another of the movie’s jokes. It’s difficult to explain Anna’s discreet romantic interest in him except as a comic illustration of the notion that opposites attract.
”Intimate Strangers” has great fun puncturing the mystique of psychoanalysis. When William calls on Dr. Monnier to seek Anna’s telephone number, the doctor withholds it but charges William for a session. Monnier, who has more than a passing resemblance to Freud, is as greedy as he is grandiose. He offers William free advice over lunch, then makes him pick up the tab. While they dine, he offers his own pompous (nonsensical) variation on Freud’s question ”What do women want?” (”Once ajar, the door to female mystery is hard to shut again”) and plants the notion in William’s head that Anna’s abusive husband may be imaginary. William, with his shyness and a sense of propriety that camouflage a burning curiosity, proves a much better therapist than his professionally accredited neighbor.
Other characters who dart in and out of the movie include Williams’s nosy, disapproving secretary, Mrs. Mulon (Hélène Surgère); Anna’s wildly jealous husband, Marc (Gilbert Melki), who is aroused by the fantasy of his wife sleeping with William; and Chatel (Urbain Cancelier), a client of Monnier’s whose elevator phobia Anna endeavors to cure after encountering him on the way to a session.
In the spirit of the best Hitchcock, ”Intimate Strangers” is seriously light. Or is it lightly serious?
Stephen Holden, NY Times, July 30, 2004
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