Writer-director Patrice Leconte returns to some of his favorite themes–obsession, voyeurism, and role-reversal–in “Intimate Strangers,” and the result is simply intoxicating. And as with his last picture, “Man on the Train,” he wittily takes his tack from a Hitchcock classic–not, as last time around, “Strangers on a Train,” but “Vertigo,” which is reflected not only in the script but in the excellent score by Pascal Esteve that gently recalls Bernard Herrmann’s. This film isn’t, though, some stilted homage, but a captivating work that obliquely recalls, rather than crudely copying, its precursor.
The premise is simple but brilliant: a distraught woman named Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) enters a Paris office, explains she has an appointment, and begins revealing her marital difficulties to its occupant (Fabrice Luchini), believing him the psychologist she’s arranged a session with. But after she leaves, having set up a schedule of further visits, it’s revealed that the man she’s been speaking with isn’t in fact Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy), whose office is at the other end of the hall, but William, a soft-spoken, rather nebbishy tax lawyer. William’s empty life–he effectively inherited his practice from his father, he lives in his childhood apartment which is attached to the office, and he has an ex-wife Jeanne (Anne Brochet) with whom he still amicably shares lunches and talks, even if he doesn’t particularly appreciate her new boyfriend Luc (Laurent Gamelon), a physical fitness instructor–as well as his fascination with the woman lead him to keep up the charade, even though he’s sufficiently uneasy about it to confer with Dr. Monnier himself, who turns out to be a delightfully pragmatic type who actually charges him for his advice. Anna quickly discovers William’s imposture, but they continue to meet and talk anyway, in spite of the disapproval of his long-time secretary Mrs. Mulon (Helene Surgere) and a threatening visit from Anna’s crippled husband Marc (Gilbert Melki), whose disability may or may not have been caused by her and who may or may not be encouraging her to look outside the home for sexual fulfillment.
Bonnaire is exceptional as the apparently hard-bitten yet vulnerable Anna, but “Intimate Strangers” is essentially about William, and Luchini captures the character’s quiet desperation with charming precision, making him at once pathetic and sympathetic. His carefully calibrated performance perfectly matches Leconte’s deft direction, which balances gentle comedy, darker undercurrents, and a touch of vague menace as well. One of the picture’s most remarkable aspects is how successfully it juggles very different tones, including a concluding twist that takes it into decidedly new territory (in terms of visual appearance as well as mood). The supporting cast adds further spice to the mix, with Duchaussoy, Surgere and Urbain Cancelier (as a phobic patient of Dr. Monnier) supplying droll amusement and Melki a bit of genuine malevolence. As usual with the director’s work, the physical production (designed by Ivan Maussion) is impeccable, and the cinematography by Eduardo Serra absolutely masterful.
On the surface “Intimate Strangers” might seem one of Leconte’s lighter films, but like “Vertigo” (as well as “Man on a Train”) it deepens in retrospect. This sharp, seductive fable of psychological liberation is a welcome addition to the impressive body of work by one of the smartest, most acute of contemporary filmmakers.