INTIMACY (Patrice Chéreau, 2001)

Uncommonly bold in its depictions of the sexual intercourse that Jay and Claire, its two lead characters, have each Wednesday afternoon in Jay’s London ghetto flat, Intimacy rivets much of our attention. I did not feel like a voyeur during these potent scenes, despite the fact that, clearly, the two lead actors, Mark Rylance and delicious Kerry Fox (best actress, Berlin) were really doing the nasty, in part because director Patrice Chéreau selects and orchestrates so compellingly the sounds of sex that I felt swept up in the matter—implicated, even. But for these grunts and sighs and associated noises, sex between these two is silent. Jay and Claire know nothing about one another (except that, obviously, Claire knows where Jay lives), including each other’s name. Every Wednesday, like fuckwork, they get down to business sans foreplay or aftplay. There is no apparent tenderness to their trysts.

I say “apparent” because there are things the camera cannot or, at least on certain occasions, doesn’t reveal. The camera is quicker to expose bodies in heat than to show warmth of the emotional (rather than perspirational) kind, much less the merging of souls. I, for one, am sickened by the sort of sexual representation one finds in such a film as Louis Malle’s Les amants (The Lovers, 1959), where a plush bed, lyrical dissolves, and an onslaught of string instruments on the soundtrack conspire to rob participants of their bodily presence. I much prefer the graphic, animalistic sex that we see in Chantal Äkerman’s Je tu il elle (1974), where two women, one of them being Äkerman herself, really get down to it. Still, my interpretation may be at odds with how others see one of cinema’s great sexual encounters. Äkerman will not defile the sexual act with a sentimental, that is, sweetly rapturous rendering; on the other hand, there is more to the event than the camera perceives, and whatever you wish to call that—emotional, spiritual, “human” rather than animalistic—is reserved for the participants. It isn’t for us observers to see and, in any case, the camera cannot honestly show it. The spiritedness of the sex, though, implies the depth of the experience in which Äkerman and her partner are engaged.

Chéreau may be implying, then, that there is more to the Jay-Claire encounters than we can possibly see or Chéreau can possibly show. The plot (from Hanif Kureishi’s stories “Intimacy” and “Night Light”), though, seems to dictate purely superficial encounters—if you will, the satisfaction of overwhelmingly desperate need on the part of both lovers. Jay, who is divorced, eagerly anticipates the Wednesday sessions; his whole being bends in the direction of their promise. But does Claire feel the same way? One day, Jay follows her and discovers her life apart from his. She is an actress, a wife and a mother. He had been a musician; his divorce has deprived him of steady access to his children. Now he works as a bartender. Dogged by feelings of failure, he shoots off about how other bartending members of his staff are really actors and other artists waiting for a real job to come through for them. We sense that Claire was intended to provide equilibrium in the face of Jay’s perceived sense of failure; and now she seems to have everything that he doesn’t have and, so, Jay strikes out at her and her marriage—and, in this way, at himself.

Reviewer Roger Ebert sees Jay as a brutal misogynist who is likely a repressed homosexual in denial of his homosexuality. Hm. Jay doesn’t seem to like women much. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to like anybody, including himself. In a flashback, his wife at the time suggests that he doesn’t even love his sons. Until his detective work clarified her life for him, however, Claire was the one person he could count on. Their anonymity softened the blows with which the specific details of his world daily assaulted him. The “revealed” Claire therefore triggers an ontological crisis, but there is also a socioeconomic dimension to this.

Claire’s spouse, Andy, is a taxi cab driver, and his financial support allows Claire to pursue her interests in stage acting and acting instruction. Andy doesn’t believe that Claire has much talent, and little that we see either in her performance as Laura in a fringe production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie or in the class she runs contests his low opinion of her. Who knows whether Jay has musical talent? Regardless, he has had to do what so many others have to do: cash in his dream in order to survive. There is no Andy in his life who can subsidize his artistic pursuit. Jay targets Claire and Andy with this frustration of his, as indeed he targets younger co-workers most of whom will also eventually have to give up their dreams. The film, however, may be implying that society is to blame for failing to provide sufficient means of support for artistic pursuit. Indeed, it’s scarcely less the case that Claire herself might have achieved more artistically had her financial support not been tangled up in her marriage. Her current situation curbs her artistic pursuit while at the same time providing the means for it. Claire, like Jay, is not free, and it’s a shame that he (temporarily) comes to see her as the enemy. In truth, theirs is a common enemy that quashes dreams and stifles gifts.

Claire remains with Andy, who, soured by her adultery, lambasts his wife with a meanness and fury that outdistance anything that Jay has come up with. Andy confronts Claire with her alleged lack of acting talent and wonders aloud about what she could possibly teach any actors-in-training. It is achingly to the point, it seems to me, that he unloads this invective on her while he is driving his cab and she is seated in the back of the cab. The mise-en-scène screams “power of the purse strings,” underlining the state of Claire’s economic dependency on her spouse. Intimacy exposes a society that indulges practicality and gives short shrift to art and to artists.

The film’s primary weakness lies in its premise. Because words do not pass between Jay and Claire until they become confrontational, we cannot imagine how the two came together in the first place. Nor does the film help us out by providing an explanation of this, such as in a flashback. But the film also has strengths—for instance, the stormy script by Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic, Chéreau’s assured use of hand-held camera, and the performances by Fox, Rylance and Timothy Spall, who plays Andy.

Intimacy, which is in English, is from France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Spain. It won the top film prize, the Golden Bear, at Berlin; in France, it won Chéreau the Prix Louis Delluc for the year’s best film and the Lumière Award as best director. It has been widely panned in Britain and the United States.

Those who ought to know better always pretend that they do.

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