BERLIN REVIEW: Patrice Leconte’s “Intimate Strangers,” A Powerful, Emotional Journey Through the “Wrong” Door
by Erica Abeel
[indieWIRE originally published this review in February 2004 as part of our Berlinale 2004 coverage.]
With “Cold Mountain” as its opener, this year’s Berlinale got off to a less than soaring start. Especially as the film’s only “stars” to grace the press conference were Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brendan Gleeson; and Harvey Weinstein touted his stillborn civil war epic — to the dropped jaws of the audience — as a “European” film.
What a gift, then, to get the next day’s “Intimate Strangers” (“Confidences Trop Intimes”) from Patrice Leconte. A two-hander reminiscent of his “Monsieur Hire” and “L’Homme du Train,” it’s a supreme example of the sort of intimate soul-baring genre the French pull off with peerless finesse (though the versatile Leconte is also capable of such wide-gauge dramas as “Ridicule” and “Widow of Saint Pierre”) Leconte calls his new film a “sentimental thriller,” a term that captures its Hitchcockian ambience of mystery, dread, and suspense, coupled with the unconventional meshing of two damaged people. Yet “Intimate Strangers” is above all a bravura display of filmmaking, integrating camera work, pacing, and music to transform the well-used theme of “mistaken identity” into an emotionally grabbing journey.
It’s all about what happens when you open the wrong door — or, more broadly considered, venture out from your snug, secure burrow to embrace life’s fearful chanciness. Seeking help from a psychiatrist, a troubled young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) mistakenly opens the door down the hall of tax consultant William Faber (Fabrice Lucchini) and immediately starts spilling her marital problems. The fascinated, milquetoasty Faber doesn’t have the guts to tell her he’s not actually a shrink — or psy (psee) — in the amusing French term. (And one can only shudder at where Hollywood would take this meeting cute premise.)
Continuing their “appointments,” Anna and Faber create a strange ritual. Faber is moved — and aroused — by Anna, and fascinated to hear all manner of raunchy secrets, among them her husband’s wish that she sleep with another man to reignite his desire. But things turn more ominous when the elusive Anna reveals she accidentally crippled her husband in a car accident. When it’s clear she’s no longer fooled by their little game, her agenda turns murkier — is she using him to get back with her husband? — the smitten Faber is in over his head, and the film could veer dangerously in any direction.
Faber is another of the boy-men that appear to preoccupy Leconte — passive, emotionally novocained, and voyeuristic, he even involuntarily witnesses sex between Anna and her husband from his window, reprising “Monsieur Hire.” Having inherited his father’s job, he lives in his parents’ old apartment and goes about his fussy bachelor ways, heating up solo dinners in the microwave, and dusting off boyhood toys — in an act of intimacy both ludicrous and touching, Faber reveals to Anna the babytalk name of one of the toys. Patrice Lucchini captures this stunted fellow with remarkable pathos and humor. “He has an incredible gaze,” Leconte said at the press conference — and in fact the whole film often feels situated in this actor’s round eyes. Just check out them out when Anna talks about masturbating in the bath, or as he braves the gaze of his Miss Pennyfeather secretary, when his new “client” leaves the office. Sandrine Bonnaire makes a perfect foil — in part because, as Leconte has observed, they’re stylistically different actors from unrelated “families,” which enhances their portrayal of characters who appear to inhabit different planets. With her smile that connotes anything but happiness — including homicidal glee, as in “La Ceremonie” — Bonnaire succeeds in striking a tricky balance between troubled, childlike, and dangerous.
While most secondary characters barely hold up under scrutiny, Leconte’s are worlds in miniature that never throw off the film balance. Faber’s old girlfriend Jeanne (Anne Brochet) stops by his digs for a one-nighter in that cool French way, and is herself seeing a shrink to get over their affair. She’s also got Faber’s number: “you never make the first move”; and she counsels him regarding Anna: “Either hump her or dump her.” There’s a wonderful snoopy lady in Faber’s building who’s always watching daytime soaps that sound a comic counterpart to — and can’t compete with — the film’s “real life” soap. Best of all is the shrink Ann initially intended to visit, a running joke of a man who treats even the briefest encounter as a billable hour. These cameos also aerate the film, forming welcome breathers from the rawness of the Anna/Faber scenes.
But the true star of the film may be the dance of Leconte behind the camera in concert with master cinematographer Eduardo Serra. The opening sequence sets the tone, cutting back and forth between the credits and shots of black-booted feet swiftly moving in the rain toward their destination, accompanied by ominous thriller-style music. The film is built of short takes punctuated by fades to black, yet the length of each take, sometimes presented as willfully accidental or slipshod, is unpredictable, so the viewer is always kept off balance. There’s a faultless rhythm to the narrative, a feather-lightness as it prospects in the psyche’s darker corners to mount a high-stakes game.
The hypersensitive camera mirrors the interior of the characters — at times it’s almost a character itself, painfully so, like a person with his nerves exposed. When its hovering, faintly tremulous eye is on Faber, it relays his timidity, fears, his very tentativeness. Sometimes extreme close-ups are cropped mid-head; intriguingly, the camera is often positioned from below. But at the final moments, it assumes a magisterial bird’s eye view of the proceedings (which I won’t be a spoiler and reveal), as if the director, too delicate to look on, were saying farewell to his creation, like the closing in a Mozart opera.
And in a sense, “Intimate Strangers” is Patrice Leconte’s farewell, as he stated in the press conference, to the intimate relationship-probing genre; he feels he’s dug around in hearts and souls (it sounds better in French) as deeply as he can. After watching this profound exploration of chance and the miracle of personal transformation, you can understand why.