Intimate Strangers

on July 30, 2004 by Wade Major
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Like a river bearing only the appearance of surface calm, Patrice Leconte's "Intimate Strangers" layers delicacy over an undertow of fierce anxiety, the mellifluous intonations of its characters strangely at odds with their burdensome insecurities. Simultaneously soothing and unsettling, tender yet intense, it's an extraordinary ballet of contrasts, and is further confirmation that Leconte--already one of the most prolific and highly respected directors in the world--is at the very top of his game.

Though the idea and script originated with writer Jérôme Tonnerre ("Un Coeur En Hiver," "My Father's Glory," "My Mother's Castle"), there's no mistaking the director's imprimatur--the "less is more" paradigm taken to lengths uncommon even for Leconte. It begins with that most popular of Hitchcockian conceits--mistaken identity--only to detour into the kind of sparse character and relationship study at which the French have always excelled. A distraught woman named Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) enters the office of a tax attorney named William Faber (Fabrice Luchini), believing him to be the therapist who works down the hall. By the time Faber realizes her mistake, it's too late--she has already begun spilling the most intimate details of her life, establishing an accidental confidence he simply cannot bring himself to break.

If the premise is compelling, the plot's unfolding is nothing less than exhilarating. Defying expectations at every opportunity, Leconte drags the audience on a maze-like odyssey of human interaction that shatters every conceivable formula. Given its complexity and the guile with which its twists and turns have been devised, "Intimate Strangers" should feel mechanical and manipulative. But Leconte is too skilled a filmmaker to fall prey to such pitfalls. Emotion is the key here--real, believable emotions that not only shape the characters but validate their choices. Though it's still Leconte who's pulling the strings, the motivations are too credible and dynamic for audiences to notice, much less care.

Longtime Leconte fans will note obvious parallels to his 1989 Hit "Monsieur Hire" in terms of casting and certain thematic elements. In addition to the shared presence of the ageless, incomparably brilliant Bonnaire, there are obvious similarities between "Hire" co-star Michel Blanc and Luchini. But such similarities, like the film's veneer of calm, are superficial. This is, by any measure, a breakthrough for Luchini, an actor who has typically been resigned to colorful supporting parts or comic diversions. Speaking as forcefully with silence as with words, he proves himself a remarkably capable leading man, every bit the equal to his more famous colleagues and countrymen, Gerard Depardieu and Daniel Auteuil.

Still, it's the little things that have the most marked impact, the almost invisible choices that only a filmmaker unfailingly confident in both his craft and himself would even dare attempt. For the film's real beauty is not so much in what it does right as in the fact that it does absolutely nothing wrong. Starring Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Bonnaire, Michel Duchaussoy, Anne Brochet and Gilbert Melki. Directed by Patrice Leconte. Written by Jérôme Tonnerre and Patrice Leconte. Produced by Alain Sarde. A Paramount Classics release. Drama/Thriller. French-language; subtitled. Rated R for sexual dialogue. Running time: 103 min

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