If the French had an equivalent of the Japanese "Living National Treasures," film director Patrice Leconte would surely rank high on the list. Over a period of three decades, Leconte has helmed over two dozen films that span a wide range of genres, but always have in common an inquiring intelligence and a focus on human motivation and behavior. From the erotic comedy-drama, The Hairdresser’s Husband to period dramas such as Ridicule (a dark satire set in the court of Louis XVI) and The Widow of St. Pierre (about love and the morality of law in French Canada) or the black-and-white (with countless shades of gray) Girl on the Bridge, a contemporary love story about a performing knife-thrower and his target, Leconte never settles for simple answers to complex questions.
Intimate Strangers alludes to Leconte’s 1989 Monsieur Hire, a small gem of a film that incorporates a crime, a voyeur, and the price one man pays for being an outsider. It’s the lonely, isolated Hire, full of yearning, who appears in Intimate Strangers in a different incarnation as Faber (Fabrice Luchini), a rather self-effacing tax attorney who has succeeded to his father’s career, office, home, and even his old secretary. Faber’s romantic interest, Jeanne (Anne Brochet) has left him for his opposite, an athletic, extroverted sort of guy. So he goes about his somewhat obsessive-compulsive life (like Hire), occasionally observing couples in the apartment house across the street (as did Hire) while playing music on the phonograph (as did Hire).
Enter Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire, as beautiful as when she played the girl in Hire), a troubled wife who makes a wrong turn and enters Faber’s office when she was headed for an appointment with a shrink down the hall. Before Faber realizes her mistake, she has started to reveal the intimate details of her life–married to a husband who has been rendered impotent due to an accident she caused. Not until Anna returns for a second visit is Faber able to apprise her of her error, but, by then, a rapport has been established and she wishes to continue their meetings. She has found a good listener. (Faber consults with the psychiatrist down the hall who tells him, "We both treat the same neuroses–what to declare, what to hide.")
The screenplay is structured as a series of relatively short scenes, each ending in fades-to-black, each adding a bit of information or a new element of mystery to the character of Anna. The score by Pascal Esteve (who also wrote the music for Leconte’s prior film, The Man on the Train) enhances a sense of mystery, a nervous edginess which lends an element of suspense to a story which is really more an unlocking puzzle than a suspense-energized plot. What is of genuine interest is to watch Anna change as she reveals more and more of her story, and in doing so, seemingly frees herself from prior constraints. As for Faber, his joy at a new and genuine connection–and with a beautiful woman at that–is expressed memorably in one scene in which, alone, he unexpectedly disco-dances through his flat to Wilson Pickett’s "In the Midnight Hour." Move over John Travolta.
Leconte is surely interested in the subject of sex here–or the lack of it. But he’s more interested in the dynamic of what goes on between two people; good listening may prove to be a whole lot more of an aphrodisiac than an athletic body. And, as seen in the situation of a patient of the psychiatrist’s who is elevator-phobic, people can face their fears and overcome their inhibitions. Intimate Strangers is a surprisingly upbeat, if distinctly off-beat romance. – Arthur Lazere