Prolific helmer Patrice Leconte does perfect justice to a bang-up premise in "Intimate Strangers." Suspenseful and engaging two-hander, about the strange symbiosis that evolves when a distraught woman mistakes a mild-mannered tax attorney for a shrink, shines thanks to splendid visual execution and sterling perfs.

Prolific helmer Patrice Leconte does perfect justice to a bang-up premise in “Intimate Strangers.” Suspenseful and engaging two-hander, about the strange symbiosis that evolves when a distraught woman mistakes a mild-mannered tax attorney for a shrink, shines thanks to splendid visual execution and sterling perfs from leads Sandrine Bonnaire and Fabrice Luchini. Consistently entertaining exploration of how much — or how little — is required to overcome obstacles to self-actualization should be welcome wherever auds crave a good story told with nuance and flair. After preeming in Berlin’s competition Feb. 7, pic opens in France Feb. 25.

Movie is especially interesting because it’s 100% percent European in its approach yet subtly appropriates the Hollywood template whereby a protag beset with problems grows and changes, arriving at a better place, challenge by challenge. That this transformation takes place almost entirely in one room without ever sinking into routine or complacency makes venture all the more remarkable.

A disturbed-looking woman named Anna (Bonnaire) enters a Paris apartment building where white-collar professionals conduct business from their homes. The concierge — whose chronic involvement in a dopey soap opera is a wink to the melodrama at work in ordinary lives — tells her that Dr. Monnier’s practice is on the fifth floor (sixth by French reckoning).

Anna takes the elevator, chooses a door and is admitted by William (Luchini), whose secretary has left for the day. Obviously upset, Anna explains it’s an emergency. With minimum prompting from William, she quickly reveals she’s been married for four years and works in an upscale luggage boutique. Her husband is unemployed, and, although their love life was formerly quite satisfying, they haven’t had sex for six months. She thinks she’s going crazy.

Talking seems to make Anna feel better and she spontaneously proposes a date and time for their next appointment. She then leaves without having given her name or phone number.

Ten minutes into pic, as William later explains his predicament to ex-wife Jeanne (Anne Brochet), the audience discovers that although he does have a couch in his office and there was a book about psychoanalysis on his desk, William is actually a financial planner specializing in tax problems.

Psychiatrist Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy), whom Anna meant to see, has an office a few doors down on the same floor. Jeanne, who’s traded in the unassuming and fastidious William for outgoing hulk Luc (Laurent Gamelon), tells her former love that he must come clean.

But although William does his level best to remedy the misunderstanding, Anna doesn’t let him get a word in edgewise on her subsequent visit as she spills ever more intimate details about her private life. She misinterprets his parting confession that he’s “not a doctor” and he’s back at square one.

William approaches Dr. Monnier for guidance, whereupon the fake shrink and the real one strike up their own strange relationship. The plot continues to thicken in sometimes amusing, sometimes disconcerting ways, as William’s elderly secretary (Helene Surgere) casts an uppity eye on this disruption of the dry financial routine.

A delectably reined-in Luchini is aces as the reserved soul who may be able to help his “patient” — and himself — even though he’s not a therapist. Bonnaire brings a terrific range of shadings to her role, leaving viewers deliberately off-kilter throughout. Although bulk of pic consists of conversations in William’s office, formula never grows stale or repetitive.

Result is intricate but never pretentious. One of screenplay’s many virtues is to operate on a layman’s level of how therapy functions. The verbal voyeurism is a class act, although some of what’s said is quite juicy. Although its tone and approach are different, the script shares some thematic concerns with Anne Fontaine’s just-released “Nathalie…” Both films are proudly talky, but every word counts: In “Intimate Strangers,” Leconte explores a wealth of little gray areas that arise when people talk to each other.

As always in helmer’s work, widescreen lensing is a delight. This is his ninth collaboration with d.p. Eduardo Serra, the latter handling lighting and the former handling framing and camera. Score, which ranges from richly sinister to classical, is a dandy fit.

Intimate Strangers

France

Production

A Mars Distribution release of an Alain Sarde presentation of an Alain Sarde, France 3 Cinema, Zoulou Films, Assise Prod. production. (International sales: StudioCanal, Paris). Produced by Alain Sarde. Executive producer, Christine Gozlan. Directed by Patrice Leconte. Screenplay, Jerome Tonnerre, Leconte.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Eduardo Serra; editing, Joelle Hache; music, Pascal Esteve; production designer, Ivan Maussion; costumes, Sandrine Kerner; sound (Dolby DTS), Paul Laine; assistant director, Hubert Engammare; casting, Catherine Deserbais. Reviewed at Planet Hollywood screening room, Paris, Jan. 12, 2004. (In Berlin Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 103 MIN.

With

Fabrice Luchini, Sandrine Bonnaire, Michel Duchaussoy, Anne Brochet, Gilbert Melki, Laurent Gamelon, Helene Surgere, Urbain Cancelier.
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