Patrice Leconte's "Intimate Strangers" opens with the brisk economy of a film made by a master screen storyteller. A beautiful but distraught-looking young woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) enters a fine old Paris building. Its concierge, who has been wrapped up in a silly TV soap, directs her to the office of a psychiatrist, Dr. Monnier. In her confused state of mind she enters the wrong office and starts pouring out her troubles to a man sitting behind a desk who she assumes is Monnier. The man can't get in a word edgewise, and by the time she's through he's too concerned and too intrigued to clear up her mistake.
More visits follow, but Fabrice Luchini's diffident but empathetic tax attorney William and Bonnaire's troubled Anna are so hooked on each other that their relationship sustains Anna's inevitable discovery of William's true identity. From this simple setup of Anna's visits to William becoming as regular as if he were an actual therapist, Leconte and co-writer Jerôme Tonnerre create a rich study of a complex relationship developing between two seemingly very different people.
This is a Leconte specialty: One need look no further for a prime example than his last film, "Man on the Train," about a friendship struck up between an aging bank robber (Johnny Hallyday) and a retired poetry teacher (Jean Rochefort). "Intimate Strangers" unfolds as a drama of psychological suspense — i.e., will Anna and William's relationship develop in an increasingly hoped-for love story? In its telling, Leconte contemplates the powerful role imagination plays in the sexual aspect of love — and of the challenge in turning longing and desire into reality.
Not without difficulty, Anna confesses at her first meeting with William that health problems have cost her husband his job, and as a result he hasn't touched her in six months. There's lots more to her predicament, as William discovers in time. Meanwhile, he's falling in love with her. Now he's in a double-edged dilemma. A formal, orderly man who inherited his business and the flat/office in which he has lived his entire life, he's by nature shy, and therefore declaring his feelings for her would not be easy under any circumstances. But he's further inhibited by having taken on the role of therapist, for he would not want to do anything unseemly as Anna struggles to come to terms with her situation.
Luchini and Bonnaire are among France's foremost screen actors, and the resources and experience they bring to William and Anna are formidable. Luchini has always been able to use his ordinary looks to great advantage to create characters who confound expectations. Beneath William's bland, even rigid exterior is a highly intelligent and understanding but deeply passionate man longing to break out of a narrow, routine existence; he has only recently brought an affair with an elegant woman (Anne Brochet) to a painful end. Similarly, Bonnaire expresses Anna's lurching attempts at self-discovery — if that, in fact, is what they really are — with tantalizing persuasiveness.
In sharp contrast to Hollywood's brooding, heavy foray into psychological drama back in the '40s, "Intimate Strangers" is light and buoyant, and has the feel of a romantic comedy, albeit one of the utmost sophistication.
Backed by a small, excellent supporting cast, the stars are also enhanced by the film's potent atmosphere and mood; by Eduardo Serra's luminous cinematography; by production designer Ivan Maussion, whose quarters for William are tellingly dark and unchanged for decades; and by prolific composer Pascal Estève's spare score, alternately romantic and portentous.
The mysteries of "Intimate Strangers" are those of the human heart, at once timeless and immediate. Like other major French directors, Patrice Leconte has long ago mastered a Gallic specialty: the knack of making impeccably polished, graceful films with an unpretentious ease while allowing them to emerge seeming fresh and spontaneous. Leconte's latest film to reach the U.S. reveals him to be at his slyest best.
MPAA rating: R for sexual dialogue
Times guidelines: Decidedly adult themes and situations
Michel Duchaussoy...Dr. Monnier
A Paramount Classics release of a co-production of Les Films Alain Sarde/France 3 Cinema/Zoulou Films/Assisse Production with the participation of Canal Plus. Director Patrice Leconte. Producer Alain Sarde. Executive producer Christine Gozlan. Screenplay and dialogue by Jerôme Tonnerre; adaptation by Tonnerre and Leconte. Cinematographer Eduardo Serra. Editor Joëlle Hache. Music Pascal Estève. Costumes Annie Perier-Bertaux. Production designer Ivan Mausson. In French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
Exclusively at Laemmle's Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500; Landmark Westside Pavilion Cinemas, 10800 W. Pico Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 281-8223; Edwards South Coast Village 3, 1561 W. Sunflower Ave., Santa Ana, (714) 540-1970.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times