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INTIMATE STRANGERS, 2004
Starring Sandrine Bonnaire, Fabrice Lucchini, Michel Duchassoy, Anne Brochet, Gilbert Melki
Anna walks into the office of William, a tax analyst, thinking he is actually the therapist, whose office is down the hall. Through a series of misunderstandings, Anna unloads the battered state of her dysfunctional marriage on William, professionally unprepared but emotionally compassionate to her state of mind. Even after William has confessed the deceit, Anna continues to come to his office for chats about her cruel, troubled husband. William finds himself falling in love with Anna, but when Anna's husband himself visits, is violence his reward for his listening skills?
Intimate Strangers (in France, Confidences Trop Intimes, literally “Very Intimate Confessions”) is a mysterious story about repression and deception, with what is potentially a very comic set up at its heart. While there are amusing moments, the film takes itself seriously, though with a surprisingly positive outcome.
It's winter in Paris, and Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) arrives in an office building. William (Fabrice Lucchini) is surprised to see her but admits her into his office. Through a series of misunderstandings (she never gives her name; he thinks she is in for tax advice about her divorce) Anna begins what she thinks is her first session with her “shrink.” She is having marital difficulties, and with no one to turn to, she has sought the advice of a professional. The only problem is, William is not a therapist: he's a tax analyst.
William admits his guilt to his ex-girlfriend, Jeanne (Anne Brochet), a librarian now seeing a gym coach. William's relationship with Jeanne is cordial; yet his empty flat, which is also the location of his tax office, betrays his loneliness. By the time their next “appointment” rolls around, William is still unable to tell Anna the truth. He is moved by fascination for her tale and compassion as she paints a picture of a demanding, disturbed husband. William goes to the office of Dr Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy) to try to find contact information for Anna. Instead, he gets rebuffed by Monnier and then charged 120 Euros for the advice! Undaunted, he gets Anna's telephone number while the secretary's back is turned. When he phones her, however, he gets the weather hotline.
Anna returns, furious that William has deceived her. Eventually, though, the two enact a ritual where William “plays” shrink and listens to Anna's problems, though gradually their relationship shifts so that Anna also asks questions about William. Slowly Anna tells of the fact she almost ran her husband over with a car and so accidentally crippled him. He stopped going to work and stopped being intimate with her. Moreover, he encouraged her to take a lover. Solitary by nature, Anna is the perfect foil to William's uptight precision: she left home at 16, with only a cigarette lighter as a relic of the father she never knew.
Unable to cope with these intimacies, William seeks Dr Monnier's advice. “People have lost the art of listening,” says the therapist. He compares their two careers; they're both about “what to declare and what to hide.” He suggests that perhaps Anna has no husband, that she has fabricated all that she has told William, that she's a fantasist. Anna in turn questions William. “I was born here and never moved,” he tells her. The flat and the practice were his parents'; even his secretary worked for his father. He had dreams of traveling the world that went quietly unfulfilled.
Anna is young and beautiful, and the more mature William is confused by her confidences. “Dump her or hump her” is Jeanne's typically bald advice. Before William can take any action, however, Anna's husband Marc (Gilbert Melki) arrives in his office. What does he want? Will William be confronted with lies or confirmation? Are he and Anna destined to remain only intimate strangers?
Intimate Strangers succeeds because of its wonderful set up and the character of William. Had the film been produced as a comedy, there is no limit to the number of gags that could be created with Anna the unsuspecting client and William the befuddled tax analyst-cum-therapist. William recommends a book to Anna written about England, and indeed his character is more English than the typical French: he is absorbed in his tax work, is unassuming, precise, tidy, and is, for all intents and purposes, repressed in his relationships with others. He has been dumped by Jeanne seven times and yet would still, we sense, return to her if she asked. He eats microwaveable dinners. He is an archetype I am seeing more often in recent French cinema, that of the lonely middle-aged Frenchman, city-bound and work-shackled. Yet, for all this, he is sympathetic. He has a hobby of collecting antique toys. He dances around his flat to “In the Midnight Hour.” He genuinely cares about people and never takes advantage of Anna, even though he has fallen in love with her.
One of the charming surprises of Intimate Strangers is its (perhaps overly long) epilogue. Without ruining the surprise, a change of scene and a fulfilment of dreams for both allows William and Anna's story to come to an end that, while completely characteristic, promises friendship and perhaps mutual love. A simple tale, with few locations (most of the story takes place in William's office), its story resembles Breaking the Waves in some ways and its music, composed by Pascal Escève, resembles the evocative score from Remains of the Day. Despite a lack of dramatic action, the suspense it builds from its first, mysterious scene is palpable and will guarantee your full attention for the duration of the film.