“Intimate Strangers” – A.J. Hakari

What is it about psychiatrists that inspires us to be more open with them than with our own loved ones? Is it the objectivity they bring to the table, the ability to dole out more clear advice having not known their patients previously? Or is it how we become comfortable sharing personal information knowing that, after a few sessions, we’ll probably never see these people again? Patrice Leconte’s Intimate Strangers builds itself upon this premise and then gives it a sophisticated little spin, providing not the slice of softcore erotica that the title suggests but rather a delicate, dialogue-driven fable that gets a surprising amount of mileage out of the subtleties of its characters.

Tortured by her failing marriage of just a few years, a woman named Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) seeks the help of a therapist to unload all her emotional baggage. She breezes into the office of middle-aged William (Fabrice Luchini), reveals candid details of her husband’s homosexuality and refusal to be romantic with her, and leaves just as suddenly as she arrives. The problem? William is actually a tax consultant, and thanks to her own scrambled state of affairs, Anna has confused him with the psychiatrist just down the hall. But rather than spill the beans to Anna and report her error, William continues playing the part of the good doctor, hearing tales of her troubled love life and trying to guide her to the best of his abilities — until an unexpected development puts a new spin on the developing relationship between William and his “patient.”

Watching Intimate Strangers, you almost can’t help but think of the ways that Hollywood would mess this story up. In America, the entire film would come across as a prime example of the Roger Ebert-coined “Idiot Plot,” a painfully-prolonged story that would end in a heartbeat if the characters were smart enough to just sit and talk things out. It almost feels as if Intimate Strangers is going to turn out that way anyhow on the outset, until Leconte slams you with an unforeseen twist that casts the story in a different light. It occurs early on, so it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal it, but for posterity, I’m keeping my mouth shut. I will, however, say that it serves as the perfect springboard to a slew of themes involving human nature and exactly what people are willing to share with whom, for both of the lead characters. It’s obvious that Anna has her own set of issues, and William takes it upon himself to help her (especially after discovering the real head-shrinker is a pompous jerk).

But William becomes just as much, if not more, of the plot’s focus as Anna. Not only does she benefit from his inadvertent therapy, so does he, evolving from a dullard whose life is ruled by routine into someone who actually stands up for himself. If Hollywood bigwigs got their hands on Intimate Strangers, the steps William would take on his quest for personal growth would be simplistic and bash you over the head with insultingly obvious symbolism. But as is, the film chronicles his journey with great care, following him as he becomes inspired to loosen his emotionally-closeted personality while helping Anna ditch hers. Of course, Leconte isn’t content to let this be it as far as his themes go, so he injects the possibility that Anna might be a fraud into the story, successfully shaking things up and keeping viewers on their toes. Bonnaire follows suit and delivers a low-key but fascinating performance as an emotional wreck who may not be entirely honest, while Luchini’s turn as sympathetic sadsack William proves to be her equal.

This isn’t to say that the film’s leisurely storytelling approach doesn’t have a downside. As intriguing as it is to watch Anna and William interact, aware that each of them knows a little something that the other doesn’t, it’s disappointing to see that in terms of story, Leconte doesn’t really do anything with it. I wasn’t expecting him to whip out some thematic bow and tie up the plot to make what he was trying to say more obvious for the less patient viewers in the crowd. However, Intimate Strangers just feels like it deserves something deeper beyond Leconte merely looking at the characters and saying, “Weird, huh?” The same goes for that idea of Anna perhaps lying about all her trouble, an intriguing proposition that Leconte unfortunately doesn’t explore much beyond just mentioning it.

Still, I have to give credit to Intimate Strangers for saying a lot with so few words. Where more pretentious films would pack themselves with silence and people staring at each other, expecting these acts alone to accentuate the story’s isolated atmosphere, Intimate Strangers backs itself up with an actual soul, dedicated to treating its characters as actual human beings rather than as pawns in an emotional chess game.

Rating: ★★★☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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