Cinema Signal:


Entre Nous:
A Woman's Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl

Killing Me Softly
A Novel of Obsession


. "Intimate Strangers" (aka, "Confidences trop intimes")

Seeking therapy is one thing; this is something else. It starts out as a therapy session gone wrong because of a mistaken door, but it's really a study in purposeful cinematic misdirection to create a case of sexual intrigue capable of raising eyebrows in its origin country, France. It's also the French answer to Steven Shainberg's 2002 adventure into obsession, "Secretary."

William Faber (Fabrice Luchini) inherited his office and accounting practice in a staid Parisian building from his accountant father, carrying on a family occupation. Life for him is methodical, predictable, full of numbers -- which he enjoys enough to have made a career out of crunching them for a loyal clientele. Some people thrive on consistency and repetition.

In the office suite next to his is a practicing psychotherapist, a shrink (Michel Duchaussoy). One day, a mature and quite attractive woman enters Faber's office, identifies herself as a client and is escorted into Faber's inner chamber. She is Anna Delambre (Sandrine Bonnaire, Monsieur Hire, Femme Fatale) and we can tell from Faber's expression of quiet amazement that such an attractive specimen of the fair sex has rarely crossed his threshold.

She notices a small sofa but, at his invitation, takes the chair across his desk. She regards his books, his reassuring attention to order, and begins pouring out the intimate details of her marriage, a current source of confusion and emotional agony. Faber is astounded at the disclosures and listens empathetically to such personal matters from a stranger. His open-mouthed stupefaction at what he's hearing becomes a sight gag worthy of Chaplin.

But, he's no dummy and, upon reflection, he realizes that she meant to go to the therapist next door. When she repeats the mistake a few days later he tries to explain the error, but her urgency to unload prevents him from getting it out. While his fantasies about the lady are increasing, so is his frustration about the false foundation for their meetings and the growing difficulty of explaining his part in allowing the charade to continue. He visits his neighbor's office in order to find out where the lady lives and how to reach her. Such client data is not given out but, after winding up with some expensive therapy of his own, gets the information about his visitor through a bit of cunning. Did I say this was a romantic comedy?

Anna storms into his office yet again, having by now realized her mistake, and comes down hard on the timid accountant for his deception. Hardly able to explain or justify himself, he accepts the scolding and, sadly, expects never to see her again. But this simple assumption turns out to be wrong. She returns, as though hooked. On what? Director Patrice Leconte ("Monsieur Hire") and writer Jerome Tonnerre ("Un Coeur en Hiver") artfully answer that question, but you pretty much have to see their film to the end to understand the curious compatibility between their unusual protagonists. Did I say it's a psychological mystery?

Leconte's ear for dramatic understatement holds us fascinated as he orchestrates a chance meeting between individuals that alters the direction of their lives while effectively externalizing their internal changes. Luchini's cautious reserve is a carefully crafted way of making the most of discoveries that shake his character's world, as though he's slyly inviting underestimation. But the true challenge of the piece is for Bonnaire to somehow mask the filmmaker's guile with a woman who is convincing as someone troubled and, yet, open and generous.

The scarce, totally capable supporting cast includes Faber's peevish secretary (Helene Surgere), his still devoted ex-girlfriend (Anne Brochet) and Anna's oddball husband (Gilbert Melki) whose peculiar pathologies provide the motivating logic behind the story's premise.

This analysis of off-beat sexual stimulation is restrained, satiric and engaging in a purely adult way. It's as unexpected as it is penetrating -- if not physically, then certainly into the outer possibilities of love and fulfillment.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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Fabrice Lucchini and Sandrine Bonnaire
An intimate liaison
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