Intimate Strangers would be a good title for quite a number of films by Patrice Leconte; The Widow of St. Pierre and The Man on the Train come immediately to mind. His films have a tendency to focus on characters who become closely involved with one another, yet rarely interconnect enough to surpass their stranger status.
The film actually bearing this title may be Leconte’s most deliberate exploration of this theme to date. It’s also one of his most deceptively upbeat works.
The screenplay by Jerome Tonnerre (Bon Voyage) is structured a good bit like a very old-fashioned romantic comedy. Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire, Resistance) walks into the office of a tax lawyer, William (Fabrice Luchini, The Cost of Living), who she thinks is a psychiatrist, and proceeds to tell him the intimate details of her life. This is the stuff from which Astaire-Rogers movies used to be made.
Since William is accustomed to his clients telling him all manner of personal information, at first he thinks nothing of hearing about Anna’s marital troubles. By the time he realizes her accident, he can’t bring himself to disabuse her of the notion that he’s a psychiatrist, so instead he simply makes another appointment with her.
Why does he do this? This being a Leconte film, we’re offered more in the way of suggestions than outright answers. Is William too embarrassed to tell Anna the truth? Is he intrigued by her and the possibility of hearing her most personal thoughts? Is he so bored with his button-down life that he can’t resist the chance to be someone more exciting for a brief time? To the degree the film offers answers, you’d have to conclude that all of these are reasons he continues the ruse.
What makes this contrived concept work is that, while it’s not long before Anna discovers her mistake, she still continues to use William as the sounding board for her problems. The further this goes, the more William is intrigued by her — and the more he questions the truth of what she’s telling him. The real psychiatrist down the hall (Michel Duchaussoy) offers William occasional advice (invariably for a fee of some kind) and even gives him a few pointers about the basics of psychiatry.
William’s fascination with the facts leads him to play detective and follow Anna, giving rise to perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the film. Aided immeasurably by his frequent composer’s (Pascal Esteve) musical score, Leconte turns this romantic comedy/drama into something vaguely like film noir, crafting a tale that’s steeped in mystery and resembles nothing so much as a Leconte version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
However, Intimate Strangers offers conclusions that are far less concrete than those in Hitchcock’s work — and strangely more unsettling, despite the fact that they’re comparatively mundane. There’s no deliberate attempt to deceive, and there’s certainly no complex, melodramatic plot lying beneath the surface.
Instead, Leconte offers the mystery of everyday life, and then never solves it on the deeper level of why the characters handle things the way they do. The payoff — to the degree that there actually is one — merely suggests more of the same.
That’s fairly typical of Leconte’s work, and it’s also what makes his films so deeply human. He never “gets to the bottom” of his characters, because his movies work on the premise that in life this is not really possible. In lesser hands, that concept might come across as simplistic, but in the realm of Leconte, it hits exactly the right note. His films never feel deliberately ambiguous, and they’re always shot through with a wry sense of humor and a fondness for the more bizarre of life’s occurrences.
Intimate Strangers is no different, despite being dressed as something a little lighter in tone than many of his films. The strange thing is that Leconte is rarely regarded as a major filmmaker. Indeed, no one seems to think much about him or his work unless he has a new film out. One day, though, we’re going to look back and wonder how we never quite noticed how very good he is. Rated R for sexual dialogue.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke