Watching Intimacy, Patrice Chéreau's latest film, is something akin to tracking a land-bound hurricane on the Weather Channel. You know the story will end in destruction, but you can't help wondering when and where it will hit. Those looking for happy endings, or even happy moments, won't find them here. Intimacy is a dark thunderstorm of a movie, cold and raw.
The story tracks an angry divorced bar manager, Jay, who lives in a basement flat in London. Every Wednesday a woman named Claire shows up for wordless sex with him on the floor. Their couplings are desperate, intense, but without affection or even conversation. Jay continues this liaison as just part of his joyless life. He can't bring himself to express any words of love for his two young sons. A failed musician, he seethes with resentment at a new bar worker whose chief offense seems to be that he has creative aspirations. Jay's main friendship is with another divorced loser, a layabout whose brief stay at Jay's flat turns into an ongoing residency. But Jay's routine changes one day when he decides to tail Claire after she leaves his place.
He discovers she's an actress, playing Tennessee Williams in a basement theater and teaching acting on the side. Obsessed, Jay begins attending her performances in secret and happens on her sad-sack taxi-driver husband, Andy, and her young son, who also likes to hang around the theater.
based on stories by Hanif Kureishi
Andy's amiability belies a buried sadness. His affability seems to spur Jay to discuss his weekly sex meetings with a woman he doesn't name. Jay keeps pushing the issue, almost daring Andy to guess who the woman is. Andy doesn't guess, but maybe he already knows. Meanwhile Claire realizes that Jay is following her. But she neither stops him nor breaks off their trysts. She seems to enjoy his pursuit. And all three seem bent on moving toward disaster.
Chéreau, who has focused on character-rich relationship tales (Queen Margot, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train), examines this dysfunctional situation with care and detail. The entire focus is on behavior, on subtle relationship shifts. Chéreau observes; he doesn't explicate. Why Jay is so angry, what he hopes to do to Claire's marriage, why she tacitly agrees to his intrusions, and why Andy does nothing are never clear. What is clear is the destructive, obsessive nature of physical desire and the convoluted relationships between desire and fulfillment. These characters are using one another to fill empty spaces. They are driven together by necessity, but can't even bring themselves to acknowledge one another. The sex scenes are handled with a brutal honesty, a far cry from Hollywood's fantasy ballets. As Jay, Mark Rylance's bald spot shows. Kerry Fox as Claire is not a sculpted implant queen. Their couplings are clumsy and sad, explicitly selfish and compulsive.
The film is quite well acted, with Rylance, the artistic director of London's Globe Theatre, turning in a burning, fierce portrait. Fox is a good match as Claire, all guilty compulsion and spiritual confusion. As Claire's bearish husband, Timothy Spall turns in a textured, intriguing performance, yet a third variation on emotional failure. Spall's Andy hides his grief. He's not angry and he's not in flight; he's entombed himself in good-natured modesty.
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This is a film about sex, so be warned that a few moments of it are graphic, pornographic in explicitness if not in intent. These sex acts -- and they are sex acts, not acting -- are unnecessary distractions. The story doesn't need them. Worse, the viewer can easily be sidetracked into making speculations about the nature of pornography, why Chéreau opted to keep these moments in the film, why actors paid for sex are artists while prostitutes paid for sex are criminals, and so on.
Some recent exploitation films such as Baise-Moi have sought to use explicit sex scenes as a marketing tool in place of quality filmmaking. Intimacy needs no such apology, and its brief graphic scenes only undercut its considerable merit.
Co-written by Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic, Intimacy is based on the novel of the same name and the story "Nightlight," both by the prolific Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette). Like much of Kureishi's previous work, this film zooms in on a drab urban society of lives lived in routines and strictures, with sex used for temporary relief and release. The feel and texture of middle-class London is effectively invoked, and the film never wavers from its relentless downbeat mood. This is a cinematic chamber piece, a fugue of empty lives and reckless hearts.