Veteran French actor-director Patrice Chereau makes a stunning English-language directorial debut with the high-intensity "Intimacy," this year's winner of the Berlin Film Festival's top award, the Golden Bear. Adapted by Chereau and Anne-Louise Tridivic from "Intimacy" and "Night Light" by "My Beautiful Laundrette" writer Hanif Kureishi, it stars Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox as lovers who know nothing about each other but meet weekly for searing sexual encounters.
"Intimacy" unfolds from the point of view of Rylance's Jay, a thirtysomething ex-musician and, for the past six years, head bartender at a popular London bar, which is where he probably met Fox's Claire, whose name he does not even know. The divorced father of two small sons who live with their mother in a tasteful, spacious townhouse, Jay is holed up in a derelict row house, where he invites Claire to meet him one Wednesday afternoon. She has been showing up at the same time ever since.
Although it is possible, even likely, that the sex is all the more intense because Jay and Claire, who exchange scarcely a word, are so unknown to each other, it also is an expression of their sheer desperation. Indeed, the better the sex gets for Jay, the more he needs love from Claire. Jay still craves love from his ex-wife and from the sons he dotes on. Having to own up to his emotional neediness, Jay assumes that love is what Claire longs for from him. That she lacks in sexual fulfillment rather than emotional fulfillment does not occur to him. Inevitably, in his loneliness and longing, Jay will start following Claire after she leaves him to learn more about her.
What Jay encounters is best left for audiences to discover for themselves. It suffices to say that Jay has embarked on a painful process of self-discovery that suggests men, at least Englishmen, raised to be always in control of their emotions, may as a result be out of touch with them. Jay's plight is mirrored in his longtime friend Victor (Alastair Galbraith), also a divorce but considerably more emotionally unstable than Jay. Observing these two in their anguish is Jay's new bartending assistant (Philippe Calvario), a resilient gay European.
Chereau makes huge demands of the cast, which also includes Timothy Spall as Claire's unlikely but perceptive husband and Marianne Faithfull as Claire's staunch, experienced friend. Faithfull brings a much-needed warmth and survivor's wisdom to the film. All these individuals are riddled with complexities and contradictions, illuminated selflessly by the actors.
In the British tradition, "Intimacy's" people, while essentially working-class, are formidably articulate. As a Frenchman, however, Chereau is not so reverential of the word as to forget the image as he evokes, with his cinematographer Eric Gautier, the claustrophobic world of his restless, desperate characters.
"Intimacy" can be elliptical to the point of murkiness, especially in regard to peripheral developments, but the pain his people inflict on themselves and each other is palpable. It is also another of those envelope-pushing films when it comes to depicting sex right up to the edge of hardcore, yet its lust is bleakly revealing rather than exploitative. There's nothing that should shock or offend sophisticated adults, but were the film submitted to the MPAA for rating, it would be a cinch to get an NC-17.
"Intimacy" also won Fox the best actress award and Chereau the best European director award in Berlin. Although "Intimacy" is a triumph for all concerned, it is especially so for the multitalented Chereau, whose last film was as much a wry delight as its title, "Those Who Love Me Can Take The Train."
Unrated. Times guidelines: strong sex, language, much nudity, complex adult themes; unsuitable for children.
Mark Rylance: Jay
Kerry Fox: Claire
Timothy Spall: Andy
Alastair Galbraith: Victor
Philippe Calvario: Ian
Marianne Faithfull: Betty
An Empire Pictures release of a Charles Gassot presentation of a Telema Prods./Studio Canal/Arte France Cinema/France 2 Cinema production in association with WDR/Arte, Mikado Film, Azor Films. Director Patrice Chereau. Producers Patrick Cassavetti, Jacques Hinstin. Executive producer Charles Gassot. Screenplay Anne-Louise Tridivic, Chereau; based on stories by Hanif Kureishi. Cinematographer Eric Gautier. Music Eric Neveux. Costumes Caroline De Vivaise. Production designer Hayden Griffin. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.
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