Besotted, like so many of his compatriots, with Alfred Hitchcock, Patrice Leconte has been making elegantly turned, wigged-out comedies by the pound since the 1970s, some blacker than others, and more often than not overlaid with the creepy veneer of a suspense thriller. Aside from Monsieur Hire, a brilliant 1989 Simenon adaptation that put Leconte on the map this side of the Atlantic, I'm not sure the form is justified. In any case, Leconte is by temperament a humanist and incapable of the chilly distance that Hitchcock famously kept from his characters. Just about every film in this prolific director's repertoire—from Monsieur Hire, through the sweetly nutso The Hairdresser's Husband (1990), from the cerebral Ridicule (1996) to The Girl on the Bridge (1999) and last year's The Man on the Train—is a twisted but warm story about two mismatched people muddling their way through to a liberating intimacy. Leconte's movies are invariably brainy and deadpan funny, but lately his work has given off a whiff of fatigue—inevitable, perhaps, for a man who cranks out a movie a year—and the faint grinding sound of an ide fixe that's been worked to death. Leconte himself seems aware of this: At the Berlin Film Festival, earlier this year, he introduced Intimate Strangers, his 20th feature, with the announcement that it might be his last love story.
As with all Leconte's films, Intimate Strangers' subject is the way an unexpected encounter can drag long-suppressed yearnings to the surface in the most emotionally attenuated lives. As always, too, the action—if that's what you call a plot in which one person talks her head off and the other listens—hinges on voyeurism, in this case of the ears rather than the eyes. Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire), a mousy, anxious young woman buttoned into a frump's uniform and a virginal beret, walks into the office of a tax accountant and, mistaking him for the psychiatrist next door, proceeds to unload the most intimate details of her troubled marriage. The office is suitably dark and stuffy—there's even a couch—while the accountant, William, who's played with tight restraint by the usually frenetic French comic actor Fabrice Luchini, is neat, precise and desiccated, his blue eyes glassy and blank from a lifelong habit of noncommittal professionalism. Still, he's fascinated by Anna's confessions, and it's not until her second “appointment” that he tries to set the record straight, to no avail. By her third visit, Anna has gotten the picture, but despite an angry confrontation, the pair continue their weekly sessions.
Other peripheral characters float in and out of the picture, among them William's disapproving secretary; his inquisitive former lover; a man purporting to be Anna's husband; and a garrulous shrink who points out a crucial parallel between his own profession and William's. At its core, though, Intimate Strangers is another Leconte two-hander, and what resonance it has flows from the increasingly intense connection between these two square pegs. Bonnaire, who launched her career as the pretty young object of Michel Blanc's obsession in Monsieur Hire, is an actress who, working quietly from within, contains multitudes. There's something provincial, almost motherly, in her borderline-bland features, but also something wild and generous, and a hint of wry worldliness that has nothing to do with the instinctive French chic of Catherine Deneuve or Emmanuelle Bart. As Anna's outpourings grow more uninhibited, she seems to expand and grow in confidence. Her wardrobe lightens, and so does the air around her as she comes to trust her confidant. He, on the other hand—except for a brief moment, surely borrowed from The Hairdresser's Husband, in which he kicks out the traces to the tune of James Brown's “Sex Machine”—remains shrouded in the shadows of his office and the apartment he's lived in since he was born, with its lumbering, old-fashioned furniture. Unable himself to open up or level with her, he wonders whether he can believe her increasingly lurid tales of a crippled, controlling husband. Then, when she disappears, he can't help but try to track her down, which turns out to be the beginning of a kind of awakening.
Leconte, as always, means to explore the gray areas between sexual espionage and love, and there remains something powerful about the fantasy of being listened to, without judgment. Yet the director seems to have arrived at a dead end about where to go with all this. The movie's middle section feels indistinct and superfluously stretched out, while the impulse to squeeze the story into the frame of a noir thriller, with its insinuating Philip Glass-like score, feels more like an old habit than something integral to the relationship unfolding before us. The ending, though, is lovely, a hint light as the air in William's new office that Leconte hasn't exhausted his love stories, so much as his way of telling them.
Intimate Strangers was directed by Patrice Leconte; written by Jerme Tonnerre; produced by Alain Sarde; and stars Sandrine Bonnaire and Fabrice Luchini. Now playing at Edwards South Coast Plaza, Santa Ana.