The suspenseful, sophisticated spirit of Alfred Hitchcock hovers benevolently over "Intimate Strangers," a stylish psychosexual thriller by Patrice Leconte. From its Hitchcockian musical score, which often seems composed of snippets of Bernard Hermann's best, to its light touch with deeply Freudian themes, this is the type of unconventional romance that only a non-American filmmaker could produce. It's at once too restrained and too perversely funny to have emanated from the play-it-big-but-play-it-safe sensibilities of Hollywood, U.S.A.
Sandrine Bonnaire and Fabrice Luchini play Anna and William, two Parisians who embark on an unlikely relationship when she unexpectedly knocks on his office door one day. The visit turns out to be the result of mistaken identity: She thinks he's a psychiatrist, when in reality he's a tax lawyer. In the hands of another filmmaker, this situation in and of itself would be the crux of the movie, with deception and denial escalating to an inevitable confrontation. But Leconte doesn't go in for such fireworks, or for such on-the-nose plotting. Instead, "Intimate Strangers" takes its characters down delightfully unexpected paths, as they engage in prim yet increasingly erotic verbal encounters that result in a deep and surprisingly touching emotional bond.
Most of "Intimate Strangers" transpires in well-appointed, quiet rooms, which serve as appropriate backdrops for Leconte's circumspect filmmaking style; as he watches two buttoned-up characters open up and reveal the most vulnerable parts of their natures, he's nothing if not discreet. And he's found two lead actors who are equal to the prevailing mood of cautious intimacy.
Bonnaire, whose most memorable role still may be the aggressive yet vulnerable young rebel in the 1985 "Vagabond," is wholly convincing as a frustrated wife (she seems to transform herself physically as Anna progressively sheds layers of clothing in favor of a more feminine and revealing wardrobe). As the punctilious, repressed William -- who, like his office, seems strangely suspended in some timeless era -- Luchini turns in an almost dancerly performance, wordlessly conveying his cipherlike character's sarcasm and quiet sexual confidence. Anne Brochet and Michel Duchaussoy add a few choice moments of deadpan humor as William's imperious secretary and Anna's would-be psychiatrist, respectively.
For all its seething, latent desires and often playful symbolism (Anna has so much psychological baggage she even works in a luggage store), "Intimate Strangers" never veers into the tacky or rude. Indeed, Leconte has made a film every bit as elegant, tactful and carefully composed as William himself. It's interesting that "Intimate Strangers" and "Open Water" are being released the same day in Washington theaters. In completely different but equally effective ways, both films examine relationships in deep waters, and reveal the alluring, sometimes fatal dangers just under the surface.
Intimate Strangers (105 minutes, in French with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema, Cinema Arts Fairfax and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is rated R for sexual dialogue.