Intimate Strangers

August, 2004, Drama

Directed by:Patrice Leconte

Starring:Sandrine Bonnaire, Fabrice Luchini, and Michel Duchaussoy

For over 30 years, director Patrice Leconte, (Monsieur Hire, Girl On The Bridge) has been providing audiences with some of the very best examples of contemporary French cinema. Equally adept at costume dramas, (Ridicule, Widow of St. Pierre) and contemporary work, (Man on the Train) Leconte couples sly humor, intelligence and a willingness to explore serious themes with excellent scripts and outstanding actors to deliver such a wide range of films that he transcends specific genres. In this intriguing psychological thriller, he examines the roles we sometimes assume and how they play out in the lives of his unlikely protagonists, thrown together by the same type of random chance that launched the friendship between an ageing bank robber and a retired schoolteacher in Man on the Train. If this offering doesn't attain the heights of that film, it provides more than enough justification to spend a couple of hours in the dark watching a gifted storyteller and his cast unfold a beautifully constructed mental guessing game. 

Sandrine Bonnaire plays Anna, a deeply disturbed housewife about to seek the help of Doctor Monnier, a Parisian psychiatrist. Under circumstance which the director renders completely credible, she blunders instead into the offices of an anal-retentive tax lawyer named William, who's so diffident in the presence of Anna's obviously troubled beauty he neglects to inform her that she's in the wrong location. When she later realizes her mistake, she's oddly undeterred by it, returning to the bewildered attorney to reveal even more of herself and her dilemma. Unsure of how to properly proceed, William consults Doctor Monnier, seeking both instruction and guidance on how to handle his erstwhile "client". This is a trio worthy of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit; Anna seeks to bear her soul, William to protect a level of personal privacy that sustains his obsessive focus on work while Monnier enjoys the opportunity to opine on the mental heath of this truly odd couple.

For all its wry exploration of psychiatry's nuances, Anna's problems aren't comical; her husband's impotence, (triggered by an auto accident) has generated a crisis in their marriage; he insists that his sexual powers will return only if she has an affair and tells him about it. Anna's reluctance to accept her husband's demands has driven her to seek professional advice--but can she really be telling William the truth? After all, she's confiding in a rather prissy l'avocat…and a bachelor to boot.

The audience finds itself in Hitchcock country here, reminiscent of Vertigo, with its nervous examination of a sexually repressed woman and the inarticulate cop who falls for her even as he uncovers suspicious evidence of her apparent duplicity. As Anna, Ms. Bonnaire gradually unfolds like the petals of a blossoming flower, working through the marital challenge she faces while the hapless William grows ever more jealous of a husband he's never met and the lover Anna may or may not decide to take, depending upon his now highly compromised advice.  

Leconte unfolds his story at a leisurely pace, deftly peeling back the layers of Anna's personality as gradually as she removes the many layers of clothing she wears to her early sessions with William. He, on the other hand, becomes increasingly disturbed by the effect this mysterious woman has on him and the demands she subsequently makes. When Anna's husband shows up and confirms at least part of her story, William must decide whether to continue risking the snug if empty life he's built for himself in pursuit of a more open and sustained relationship with Anna, which he may never acquire, much less fully understand. To his credit, the director brings his mystery to a perfectly enigmatic climax, hinting at a resolution but allowing the audience to reach its own conclusions based on the evidence he's so dexterously presented. 

A final word, on the power of vulgarity in the hands of someone with a real point to make; American movies often dilute the potential force of screen obscenities by dousing audiences with them; but when Anna uses similar terms in describing the precise nature of her marital problems, she does so with a brevity and directness that restore the impact of words to legitimately convey aspects of a character's personality that more conventionally acceptable language simply couldn't achieve. 

Quintessentially Gallic in both outlook and style, Leconte's latest adds additional luster to his consistently interesting oeuvre.     

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