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With: Kerry Fox, Mark Rylance, Timothy Spall, Alastair Galbraith, Philippe Calvario, Marianne Faithful
Written by: Patrice Chéreau, Anne-Louise Trividic, based on stories by Hanif Kureishi.
Directed by: Patrice Chéreau
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content and language/Unrated
Running Time: 119
Date: 01/20/2001

Intimacy (2001)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Cold Comforts

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Intimacy has already stirred up the movie world with its onscreen -- and very realistic -- depiction of oral sex. Not by porn stars or first-time actors, either. We're talking Kerry Fox (An Angel at My Table and Shallow Grave) and Mark Rylance (Angels and Insects) here. But one blow job does not a good movie make. Intimacy stumbles along, clutching at some half-formed ideas, but never takes off.

Writer/director Patrice Chéreau, working from stories by Hanif Kureishi, tries to paint a portrait of ordinary people who have a hard time communicating with one another. At the crux of this conundrum are Claire (Fox) and Jay (Rylance), who meet every Wednesday afternoon in Jay's filthy apartment for some anonymous sex. Neither participant knows who the other really is, not even a name.

Jay begins to feel curious about Claire and follows her, eventually learning that she's an actress, performing The Glass Menagerie (badly) in a little basement theater in a bar located next to the toilets. He keeps showing up and eventually gets to know her husband, Andy (Timothy Spall). Jay keeps goading Andy, questioning him about fidelity and marriage until Andy figures out what's going on.

Jay also works as a bartender. He expresses frustration over the arrival of a new young worker, but the two become friends anyway. Jay also has a wife and child he sees occasionally.

These scenes away from Claire resonate even less than the ones depicting her affair, becasuse in addition to not saying anything, the supporting characters don't do anything. The film also spends equal time with Claire while she is away from Jay. She teaches an acting class, which she can't seem to manage any better than her mediocre onstage performance. All the characters talk and talk, but it's all just space-filler.

Of course, Chéreau's point is to observe the process by which humans can become so alienated from each other. But Intimacy is presented in a completely documentary-like, realistic way, complete with shaky-cam shots and mise-en-scene.

In going for an objective view, Chéreau merely shows us empty, soulless people shuffling through their lives, with no commentary or poetry on how they got where they are or how they might break out of their old patterns. It's just like sitting through a boring conversation in real life. The ironic title, Intimacy, means about as much as the title of Catherine Breillat's equally vapid 1999 film Romance.

Joel and Ethan Coen take on this same level of incommunicativeness in their current film, The Man Who Wasn't There. But their stylish point of view, quirky humor and use of the film noir genre reveal interesting things about people who lead empty lives. The Coens offer a point of view on their hero, whereas Chéreau wants the grandeur of his vacant dialogue to speak for itself.

That may be why Chéreau chose to include the graphic sex scenes, which I'm not entirely opposed to. The more we see this kind of thing on screen, the faster our old-fashioned taboos will be broken. But the scenes simply cover up for the lack of vision in the story -- they don't add anything.

Only the marvelous Timothy Spall (Secrets & Lies and Topsy-Turvy) brings any personality to his role. Andy's choice not to leave his wife and the alarming things he says to her in the film's climax make up the most truthful moments in the film. Spall himself brings so much warmth to all his characters that I'm willing to bet he'd be incapable of playing someone cold and emotionless, like our heroes.

The movie also contains some good, if gratuitous, rock songs from The Clash and The Stooges that offered welcome relief now and then. But one could also stay at home, save nine bucks and listen to the albums.

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