French director Patrice Leconte (Ridicule , The Girl on the Bridge ) may not be able to count on much goodwill from film critics these days, at least in Europe. His name will be forever associated with the Leconte Affair, in which a group of powerful industry figures made a rather desperate attempt to control critics – suggesting, for example, that reviews be held back for a week so that moviegoers have time to make up their own minds, unswayed by "biased opinion". In Australia, this cry carries an all-too familiar ring.
Moreover, Leconte has long been typed as a director of refined, even staid, bourgeois drama. But there is usually something stirring beneath the lush surface of his carefully scripted pieces. His best films, such as Monsieur Hire (1989) and The Hairdresser's Husband (1990), evoke the simultaneously ecstatic and fragile nature of people's inner fantasies.
Most movies concentrate on a single character's fantasy, but the novelty of Leconte's work comes from the fact that he usually explores the criss-crossing of two distinct fantasy worlds. The result can be tragic, but it can equally give rise to a strangely poignant form of love.
Like his previous Man on the Train (2002), Intimate Strangers is essentially a two-hander. Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire), troubled in her marriage, visits a psychoanalyst. But, in a cleverly plotted error, she inadvertently walks into the office of William (Fabrice Luchini), an accountant. Intrigued and unable to 'fess up, William decides to keep playing the role over repeated sessions.
This situation and its introspective mood – in which most key events are alluded to rather than shown – will remind some viewers of another contemporaneous French film, Anne Fontaine's Nathalie ... (2003). But Leconte and his writer Jérôme Tonnerre have some excellent twists, surprises and complications up their sleeve that fan the intrigue without ever escalating it into outright melodrama.
This is a captivating character study, superbly acted. Bonnaire manages to incarnate both an ordinary person with banal problems and an alluring femme fatale, while Luchini perfectly captures the comportment of William, poised somewhere between long-practised self-repression and an urge to cut loose (a glimpse of him dancing alone is priceless). Hélène Surgère, in a minor role as William's disapproving secretary, is wonderfully droll.
Intimate Strangers displays a genuine psychoanalytic depth. The complicated, ever shifting relationship between doctor and patient; the way in which the sessions impact on life outside the office; the subtle but decisive changes in people's attitudes – all of this is sensitively depicted, as in a Claude Sautet film like A Heart in Winter (1992 – scripted by Tonnerre).
Although it initially appears to restrict itself to an extremely limited time and space, the story is really an excavation of the characters' personal histories – as indicated by the lovely motif of unsettled dust.
MORE Leconte: Le Parfum d'Yvonne
© Adrian Martin October 2004