- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

The French import “Intimate Strangers” clarifies its thematic intentions even before introducing the title characters, lovelorn souls (played by Sandrine Bonnaire and Fabrice Luchini) who may or may not transcend their romantic discontents after becoming acquainted by chance.

The odds against redemptive happiness look longer than they should by the time director and co-writer Patrice Leconte finishes belaboring a premise with considerable romantic comedy promise.

A stopover in the apartment of a concierge alerts us to lines from a TV soap opera she happens to be watching: “He listens to me. He understands me.” Moments later Miss Bonnaire’s Anna, a woman desperate for a sympathetic listener, knocks on an upstairs door in the same building. She is admitted by Mr. Luchini’s William. During their conversation in his office it becomes apparent that she has mistaken him for a psychotherapist, Dr. Monnier, whose office is down the hall.

Actually a mild-mannered tax consultant, William is too shy, polite and intrigued to correct her misconception on short acquaintance. After she departs, looking forward to a second session, William does confide in Dr. Monnier (Michel Duchaussoy in a relaxed and witty performance that makes you wish he were a major character), who takes the opportunity to charge the alternate patient for reassuring professional advice.

William goes on to point out, in explanation for letting Anna babble, that tax clients have a way of unloading their love lives indiscriminately, and Dr. Monnier observes that both shrinks and tax advisers must evaluate what to declare and what to conceal.

At this point the movie seems to be pointing in a diverting and astute direction. The outlook grows very obscure, however, with repeated exposure to Anna, who claims to be an estranged wife and likes to oppress William with accounts of a sexually degenerate and perhaps predatory husband.

While it would be humorously preferable to peg Anna as a compulsive liar, the movie prefers to corroborate her sordid confessions up to a point, precluding a viable lighthearted cure.

We’re also made conversant with William’s downbeat romantic situation as the consultations drift into an unsavory rut. Estranged from a girlfriend (or perhaps ex-wife) named Jeanne (Anne Brochet), poor William is revealed to be an emotional softie suffering in silence and overdue for a rebellion and change of scene.

He has inherited his late father’s business, not to mention an aging, formidable mother-hen secretary, Madame Mulon, played by Helene Sugere, looming as large in a minor role as Mr. Duchaussoy did.

Given the daunting asperity of Jeanne and the morbid, cuckoo affectations of Anna, one could easily despair of William’s prospects. It looks as if he’s cursed: a magnet for treacherous, heartbreaking consorts.

This masochistic tilt dissipates the comic potential, but Mr. Leconte is not prepared to pursue the logic of his nastier intimations. As a result, this whimsical dud remains stranded somewhere between blithe and creepy storytelling methods.

[R]**

TITLE: “Intimate Strangers”

RATING: R (Graphic sexual dialogue)

CREDITS: Directed by Patrice Leconte. Screenplay by Mr. Leconte and Jerome Tonnerre. Cinematography by Eduardo Serra. Production design by Ivan Maussion. Costume design by Annie Perier-Bertaux. Music by Pascal Esteve. In French with English subtitles.

RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes

WEB SITE: https://paramountclassics.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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