Great filmmakers don't need to include nudity or bed scenes to portray sensuality and sexual tension. Remains of the Day is a perfect example: Anthony Hopkins plays a chief butler and Emma Thompson a housekeeper as both choose to repress their attraction for each other—and the point was made.
Intimate Strangers, from the brilliant French director Patrice Leconte, is another example of such dressed-up sensuality.
The set-up for this French emotional thriller is irresistible: On her first visit to a psychiatrist, an attractive woman (Sandrine Bonnaire) pours out her disappointment in her husband's sexual rejection of her. The shrink (Fabrice Luchini) listens well. Or maybe he's just speechless, at least initially? Soon we learn that Anna, who has dyslexia, made a wrong turn when exiting the apartment building elevator on her way to the psychiatrist's office—and accidentally ended up in the home office of a reserved tax accountant, William Faber, to whom she recounts the intimate details of her sex.
Two sessions go by before Anna learns of her mistake, though not for the poor taxman's lack of trying to explain his identity. Realizing she's been confiding in the wrong person, she feels humiliated and disgusted. But, by then, she is also drawn to William. He is the only man who has truly listened to her, the only man whom she could tell the whole truth about the most embarrassing aspects of her life. Isn't this kind of empathy essential to intimacy? Why, after Anna finds a listening ear and acceptance in William, should she look for a certified psychiatrist? After all, as in one of many witty moments of the film, the psychiatrist she had intended to see tells the tax accountant, "We both treat the same neurosis: what to declare and what to hide."
Director Leconte loves to explore what happens when strangers who have little in common bump into each other by accident and develop a relationship. In his acclaimed movie Man on the Train, a friendship grows between a world-weary bank robber and a retired teacher. They each want what the other has: the thief wants stability, and the teacher wants the thrills.
In Intimate Strangers, the two protagonists also are like night and day. Anna is an enigma: mysterious, unpredictable, hard-to-figure out; sometimes, it seems, she wants it to be that way. Sometimes you wonder how much of her finding William was accidental. Can she be trusted? The moment you begin feeling for her, she says something that makes you wonder if she's manipulating William. Is she a victim of her husband's callousness, or is he her victim? Is she betraying her husband, or is her husband betraying her? Is her husband sick—or is she? Would it be morally right for her to leave him? (How you answer these questions will depend on your views on legitimate conditions for divorce.)
Every time Anna sees William, she is wearing fewer clothes, transforming from a frump into a temptress. During her first visit she's wearing several layers of baggy clothing; during her last one she has on a breezy summer dress. Is she seducing the tax accountant deliberately—or does the gradual shedding of the clothes blatantly represent her opening up to him on the inside? What, as the actual psychiatrist wonders, if she's "a fake neurotic consulting a fake shrink?"