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.

Anna shares her story with William in 'Intimate Strangers'

Anna shares her story with William in 'Intimate Strangers'

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."

Sandrine Bonnaire plays the part of Anna

Sandrine Bonnaire plays the part of Anna

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.)

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Fabrice Luchini and Sandrine Bonnaire in the lead roles

Fabrice Luchini and Sandrine Bonnaire in the lead roles

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?"

William is an open book: before he met Anna, his life was uncomplicated, measurable, transparent, maybe a little boring. Anna's invasion into his life eventually helps him realize it. She challenges his appropriateness. At one point, she asks him why he—a tax accountant working from home—feels the need to wear a tie. "Does it reassure you?" she asks, echoing dress-code oppressed workers everywhere. William's taking it all in, and maybe, by the end of the movie, he will take risks greater than taking off a tie.

Fabrice Luchini plays the part of William

Fabrice Luchini plays the part of William

Just like in Man on the Train, the two opposites attract because of their differences. Anna introduces William to the emotional complexity that can only come from estrogen; he gives her something her husband doesn't: respect and understanding. As many women, sexologists, and even theologians will tell you, empathetic listening can be the best foreplay. And so, meeting by meeting, an intimacy between these two strangers develops.

Their increasing closeness is accentuated by a hand-held camera that searches out their faces and zooms in on them quickly, often leaving the surroundings noticeably blurry, as if to ignore the physical reality. The wonderful contrast between light and dark also draws the attention to the emotions playing out on the faces of Anna and William. Leconte subtly infuses the movie with humor and psychological depth. Luchini's small round eyes only have to open slightly wider than usual and his lips only have to part faintly for him to get the audience to laugh out loud. Bonnaire's big brown eyes only have to linger a second longer for us to know Anna is falling in love with William.

Be it romantic or friendly or brotherly, love is sure to follow when people develop a habit of truth-telling and hearing each other out. Some people just can't handle it. But those who do are rewarded by something that echoes faintly the kind of communion God himself wants to have with us.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Do you think William is a good listener? Why or why not? What makes a good listener?

  2. What kind of listening do women tend to want from men? When it comes to listening, are men wired differently? Or do men just tend not to realize how much women long to be heard and accepted?

  3. Would you describe the relationship between Anna and William as intimate? Why? Can intimacy be built on lies?

  4. Was Anna right to leave her husband?

  5. Why do you think more and more Americans, Christians among them, find themselves in therapy?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The film's frank discussion of sexuality, sometimes in profane terms (when Anna quotes her husband), makes it suitable for adults only.

What Other Critics Are Saying
compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet

from Film Forum, 08/05/04

William (Fabrice Luchini) and Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) are strangers drawn to each other's mysteries and differences in Intimate Strangers, the latest drama from the acclaimed French director Patrice Leconte (Man on the Train, The Widow of St. Pierre).

William is a tax advisor who has lived almost his whole life in a dull, claustrophobia-inducing building. His office is lined with his remnants of father's business, timeworn volumes, and even the toys of his childhood. He has never known any world but this one. Thus, when Anna accidentally stumbles into his office thinking that he is a therapist, the novelty of the mistake leads him to conceal his true identity and play the part of a counselor while this exotically beautiful women spills her personal secrets for him.

Anna is trapped in a different kind of situation. She's a married woman, but she's also restless and racked with anxiety, due to the neglect her husband has shown her. They have not been intimate in six months, and she is lonely and lost. At least, that's what she tells William. As the story progresses, we come to wonder just how much of her story is the truth. Is she, perhaps, driven by loneliness, or perhaps by something more sinister, to create a fiction in order to enjoy a personal conversation with another human being? Is she really baring her soul to find some solace? Or is she playing her cards in order to gain some kind of advantage over poor gullible William? Is she even married at all?

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Harry Forbes (Catholic News Service) says Intimate Strangers is "the sort of sophisticated love story that only European filmmakers seem to manage without resorting to gratuitous sex or clichéd plot development. Leconte is a skillful storyteller. And the performances … are masterful, with the middle-aged, sad-eyed Luchini—a far cry from a conventional leading man—particularly expressive. Inevitably, a certain static quality sets in, though the actors' faces speak volumes and keep you absorbed throughout almost all of the film's 104-minute running time."

I agree with Forbes. The performances, virtuosic displays of restraint and subtlety, are reason enough to see the film. And it is refreshing to see a director who acknowledges that a strong relationship should be based on more than mere sexual attraction. If Anna is telling the truth about her marriage, than she built her house on a rotten foundation. The things she learns about intimacy through her conversations with William show us that, by listening to each other and holding back our initial, hormone-driven impulses, a man and a woman lay a firmer foundation for a promising future together. (And yet, let me be clear, these characters are still a long way from having a firm grasp of selflessness, honesty, and true love.) My full review is at Looking Closer.

Mainstream critics seem pleased to have such a sophisticated and artful work to enjoy in the middle of a summer full of commercial blockbusters.

from Film Forum, 08/19/04

Reviewing Intimate Strangers, Darrell Manson (Hollywood Jesus) says, "This kind of mistaken identity is rife for comedy, and at times that is where the film goes. But intimacy is serious business, and as the story progresses, the comedy begins to fall into the background. The tension begins to mount in an almost Hitchcockian manner as the story goes on."

Agnieszka Tennant (Christianity Today Movies) writes, "Director Leconte loves to explore what happens when strangers who have little in common bump into each other by accident and develop a relationship. Leconte subtly infuses the movie with humor and psychological depth. Be it romantic or friendly or brotherly, love is sure to follow when people develop a habit of truth-telling and hearing each other out. Some people just can't handle it. But those who do are rewarded by something that echoes faintly the kind of communion God himself wants to have with us."

Intimate Strangers
Our Rating
3½ Stars - Good
Average Rating
(not rated yet)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for sexual dialogue)
Directed By
Patrice Leconte
Run Time
1 hour 44 minutes
Sandrine Bonnaire, Fabrice Luchini, Michel Duchaussoy
Theatre Release
September 03, 2004 by Paramount Classics
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