NYFF 2001 REVIEW: Love Streams; Chereau's Intense "Intimacy"
Patrick Z. McGavin
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Patrick McGavin reviewed “Intimacy,” which will screen tonight at the New York Film Festival, during its 2001 Sundance Film Festival world premiere.]
Mark Rylance (left) and Kerry Fox in Patrice Chereau’s “Intimacy.”
The emotional fervor of Patrice Chereau‘s films requires levels of accommodation and relief all their own. Serious, probing, and at times uncomfortably graphic, Chereau’s “Intimacy,” his first English-language work, expresses such a raw, unvarnished sexual and emotional intensity that seeing it is like a confession of faith. Every second of this movie breathes.
The opening half hour exudes such an animalistic sexual energy that the rhythm feels discursive, practically shapeless. Stripped of exposition or psychological underpinning, the movie plays like a Cassavetes film, and much of the subtext, as in Cassavetes’ work — involves acting and role playing. The work has such an immediacy it seems impossible not to be drawn into its intricate, peculiar texture.
Adapting a story by Hanif Kureishi, Chereau moves with authority and speed, finding a boldly expressive and fluid camera style that underlines the anxious, disruptive interaction of its two protagonists. A darkly handsome man, Jay (Mark Rylance), living in a dank London flat, opens his door to a quiet, plain woman, Claire (Kerry Fox). Her body, open and suggestive, hovers in close proximity to the man. There is little, if any, verbal communication.
Suddenly, their hands, feet, faces, and mouths are entwined, their bodies whirling and moving against each other, almost spasmodically. The sex is not only aggressively staged and realistically rendered, Chereau and his masterful cinematographer Eric Gautier offer no escape from its repercussions. It is nearly as graphic as porn, without the alienation or stylization, and the effect illustrates their primal attraction. It presupposes rapture as a substitute for emotional satisfaction. Their pattern is repeated each Wednesday: She arrives, the two neither speak nor interact emotionally — and the sex is convulsive and enveloping.
In “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” and his other works, Chereau has been drawn to themes of sexual indeterminacy and shifting ambiguities. With “Intimacy,” Chereau and co-writer Anne-Louise Trividic deploy this emotionally extreme set up not necessarily as a meditation on longing and feeling, but preferring instead a moral inquiry into choice, disruption and sensibility.
Jay is in flight from responsibility and purpose, having abandoned his wife and their two young children. His own life characterized by failure and lack of nerve — giving up his career as a musician to work at a bar — he is drawn to uncover Claire’s alternative life outside their Wednesday encounters. He tracks her movements, desperate to learn what it is that motivates her needs and desires.
Following her to a pub where she plays Laura in a basement production of “The Glass Menagerie,” Jay establishes a moody, uncertain friendship with her husband (Timothy Spall). Jay insinuates himself into the man’s life, teasing, pulling out relevant information to assert his own power and authority. Interestingly enough, the movie undergoes a quiet transformation, with its two protagonists ostensibly altering roles, the point of view and subjectivity turning to Claire.
In articulating Claire’s innate attraction and need for sexual gratification, “Intimacy” strikes a harrowing, emotionally bruising chord on the need for self-expression and renewal. But most plaintively, the work underscores how restricted and trapped these characters are. The extreme attraction between Claire and Jay develops from a striking similarity: Jay cannot abide by the rules and responsibilities of husband and father; Claire needs escape from the strict roles of wife and mother. “Intimacy” paints a dark, corrosive portrait of contemporary existence, of its futility and social breakdown, and the irreconcilable gulf between desire and responsibility.
As a physical production, “Intimacy” is striking. Cinematographer Eric Gautier has such a precise, poetic style that the film is alive with possibility and resourcefulness. In addition to Chereau, Gautier has collaborated with France’s three most important young filmmakers: Leos Carax (“Pola X“), Olivier Assayas (“Irma Vep“) and Arnaud Desplechin (“My Sex Life“). His street scenes carry such a jolt of electricity, each shot carries a charge of excitement, wonder and revelation. The use of light is also beautiful, most effectively in denoting the passing of time — and the sense of disappointment across Jay’s face one Wednesday afternoon when Claire never turns up.
Like Cassavetes, Chereau finds his most expressive and audacious formal qualities in his actors. “Intimacy” is a work that may be easy to ridicule, but the actors elevate it, issuing grace, serenity, depth of expression and intensity of feeling.