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Feelings in fetters

In Intimate Strangers, words touch, not bodies, as characters imprisoned by their own emotional walls seek to make connections beyond themselves.

JANET K. KEELER
Published September 9, 2004

Warning: Do not approach the quietly engrossing Intimate Strangers with American sensibilities or you will walk away unsatisfied and perplexed.

Where's the action? Where are the sharks swimming around our troubled couple? Where are the roaring engines? The dangerously low-cut dresses? The flying bullets?

There are explosions, but they are in the heads of characters trying to make sense of their lives. Emotional wounds are ripped open by long looks, a forgotten appointment, a lost cigarette lighter.

Intimate Strangers is a very French film. The fashionably dressed characters are beautiful, intelligent and deep. They are witty and sexy, though not overtly.

The haunting score comes mostly from violins, sorrowfully insisting that these struggling people deserve our attention. Low lights accompany hushed tones.

And there are lots of cigarettes.

Director Patrice Leconte (Monsieur Hire, Man on the Train) is a master at creating intimacy and capturing loneliness. Audiences will find themselves holding their breath - and not because they are afraid of what will jump from the shadows. We know what lurks because we share the same demons.

Alienation is a scarier predator than aliens.

Leconte wrings much from a simple premise. Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) comes to the office of Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy), a psychiatrist she hopes will help solve her marital problems. But, in a Shakespearean twist, it's the office of the tax attorney down the hall that she stumbles into.

(And by the way, the hall plays a prominent role here. There are lots of long shots down the narrow corridor, reinforcing the characters' feelings of being pigeon-holed in unsatisfactory lives.)

Seemingly stuffy attorney William (Fabrice Luchini) is fascinated by Anna and does not tell her right away that she has made a mistake. He meets with her twice before revealing the truth, but by that time Anna has revealed so much she doesn't care.

Anna has found something more seductive than a bottle of silky French Bordeaux: A man who listens.

William occasionally turns to Dr. Monnier for advice on "treating" Anna. William believes the two are having a professional conversation, but the doctor thinks otherwise. He charges him the usual rate, 120 euros, and William pays without protest.

The more William listens to Anna, the more he falls for this mystery woman who claims that her disabled husband is no longer interested in her. He has encouraged her to take a lover, she tells William. Eventually, the creepy husband (Gilbert Melki) confirms this.

William is a frustrating (and frustrated) middle-aged guy. Where Anna is rootless, the product of an unhappy childhood, he is root-bound. He has the same job as his father and in fact lives and works in the only home he has ever known: his parents'.

We get a glimpse of William's inner sex machine when he does a hip-twisting, good-time dance to Wilson Pickett's In the Midnight Hour. Unfortunately, he's all alone in his apartment. If Anna had seen that, she'd have jumped him for sure.

That's the frustration with Intimate Strangers. We know William is more than the tie-and-suit financial adviser he shows Anna. Former girlfriend Jeanne (Anne Brochet) coaxes smiles and more from him. But he can't make a move on Anna. Argh.

In the end, Anna and William decide not to be miserable, but if they choose to be happy together, they do it off-screen.

The American movie viewer in me wanted to see that action.

-- Janet K. Keeler can be reached at 727 893-8586 or krieta@sptimes.com

INTIMATE STRANGERS (Confidences Trop Intimes)

Grade: B-

Director: Patrice Leconte

Cast: Sandrine Bonnaire, Fabrice Luchini, Michel Duchaussoy, Anne Brochet, Gilbert Melki

Screenplay: Jerome Tonnerre

Rating: R; sexual language and adult situations

Running time: 104 min.

French with English subtitles

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