Director: Patrice Chéreau
By Roderick Heath
Considering that we’re supposed to be living in an age in which cinema is freely littered with the perpetually conjoined twins of sex and violence, it’s interesting that whilst mainstream media offers copious amounts of the latter, the former is really quite underrepresented. You don’t see the makers of crappy action films trying to squeeze unsimulated sex scenes into their movies, and with good reason: they’d be far more cruelly penalised if they did. At the end of the ’90s and early new century, a handful of controversial art house pics did ruffle feathers with boundary-pushing portrayals of sexuality, like Catherine Breillat’s Romance (1999); Virginie Despente and Coralie’s Baise-Moi (2000), and Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004). Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy likewise caused about 10 minutes’ worth of controversy for featuring real screwing by middle-aged actors Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance photographed, unlike just about every other sex scene in history, with the same cool simplicity a cameraman would otherwise turn on them drinking a cup of coffee or walking on the street.
But what’s truly striking and disorientating about Chéreau’s film is the utterly unflinching, merciless way he photographs Rylance’s pasty arse and grizzled face and Fox’s far from supermodel flesh, and, most importantly, the anxiety, anger, and terror that pool in their eyes. The nakedness of their bodies, as the cliché goes, is nothing compared to the nakedness of their souls, but it’s certainly true that in order to wrench the most profound communication of desperation and stripped-bare humanity in his actors, Chéreau had to remove every safeguard of actorly affectation. Not that he had to go too far with Rylance, predominantly a stage figure who, nonetheless, on the basis of his performance in this and in the underregarded Angels and Insects (1995), would count as one of the most interesting actors alive, or with Fox, beloved of movie fans since her starring role in Jane Campion’s An Angel at My Table (1989).
Intimacy was adapted by Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic from stories by the laureate of British grunge writing, Hanif Kureishi, whose screenplay for the 1985 hit My Beautiful Laundrette helped revitalise British cinema. With exceptions—the toothless Peter O’Toole vehicle Venus (2006), for example—Kureishi’s name being attached to a movie promises fearless material. Chéreau, for his part, was a former wunderkind stage director. His two films of the new century, Intimacy and 2005’s splendidly mordant Conrad adaptation Gabrielle, evince a tense and incisive talent more at home with these gamey, literate, intimate psychodynamics. Intimacy, like most movies in this demi-genre, reflects the long shadow cast by Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, commencing with a similar conceit of a willfully anonymous, intermittent, rudely carnal hook-up between Rylance’s Jay and Fox’s Claire.
Claire shows up every Wednesday afternoon at the house Jay’s renting from his friend Victor (Alastair Galbraith), initiating protracted sessions of transcendental rutting, before disappearing again. The back story slowly resolves: this has been their habit for several weeks since meeting at a bar, and they know virtually nothing about each other. Jay is the head barman at a flashy London club, maintaining a tight, authoritative, nitpicking control over his small realm even though he really has nothing but contempt for his job. He protests to the managers about their hiring of the inexperienced but good-looking gay Frenchman, Ian (Philippe Calvario), doubting his ability to do the job. But Ian quickly proves adept, and he and Jay soon become good enough friends so that Jay invites him to move into an empty room in Victor’s house, who, like Jay, is on the run from marriage and fraying more obviously than his more composed, unreadable friend.
The circumstances in which Jay left his wife (Susannah Harker) and two sons (Greg Sheffield and Vinnie Hunter) come out in fragments of dialogue and then flashback: suffering mysterious, gnawing pangs of mid-life crisis and hinted sexual frustration, Jay simply walked out one night after heavy drinking and nearly being caught masturbating in the toilet by one of his sons. His taciturn shell, so frustrating to his family and friends like Victor, begins to unravel when it becomes apparent that he’s hooked on his weekly liaisons with Claire, panicking when Victor doesn’t clear off as usual on a Wednesday and waiting pensively, cracking the bubbles in plastic wrap. When Jay’s inspired to follow Claire across town to learn something about her, he discovers to his shock that she’s an actress currently appearing in an amateur production of The Glass Menagerie, married to cab driver Andy (Timothy Spall), and has a son Luke (Joe Prospero) of her own.
Although Jay’s viewpoint remains dominant, the structure of the film does a partial reversal with these revelations about Claire. It encompasses her travails, her frustrated efforts to make a career as an actress. Like Jay, she pours much of her energy and forceful, dissatisfied feelings into their couplings, and again like Jay, she’s also in a business she’s respected in but secretly hates—the acting classes she runs for people like talkative, grating dilettante Betty (Marianne Faithfull). Her husband generally doesn’t watch all of her performances, preferring to play pool, but he maintains a genial, interested tone and plays the theatre buff for her sake. When Jay, appalled, fascinated, and strangely fixated, keeps coming to Claire’s performances, he strikes up an acquaintance with Andy and Luke. Jay isn’t able to keep himself from describing to Andy in contemptuous terms his anonymous girlfriend whose screwing him behind her husband’s back. How much Andy knows, suspects, or is in denial about becomes a taunting question for everyone, especially once Claire discovers that Jay knows now who she is and where he can find her.
A great deal of the power of Intimacy comes from the careful interweaving of Rylance’s performance and the hungry, roving, defence-stripping filmmaking that owes so much to Chéreau’s excellent eye and the efforts of DP Eric Gautier and editor François Gédigier. The urgency of the camera and cutting escalates and subsides in deep accord with the fluctuations of emotion on screen as Jay loses control, possessed with equal parts desperation, intrigue, need, and horror at both himself and the world he sees losing interest in him. It has a quality of expressionist intent that greatly expands the film’s power beyond its kitchen-sink realist roots. This is particularly evident in a brilliant sequence in which Jay catches sight of Claire on a street and begins trying to catch up to her, only to lose track and revolve in frantic distraction before giving up and heading for the pub where her theatre group performs unaware that she’s spotted and begun following him in smiling intrigue until he arrives at the pub, and her smile gives way to glazed shock as she realises he knows that much about her.
Fox’s excellence is not to be understated. She radiates unease even as she plays the fierce taskmaster for her class, her style of dress saying a little too much about her artsy pretensions, tearing strips off Betty and another classmate (Fraser Ayres) and earning praise for it because, as Betty says, it’s what they think they need. Inevitably, when she and Andy finally lay their cards on the table, the eruption of festering resentment is concussive and humiliating, Andy channeling his anger not into the idea of having an affair but in living with her affectations (“You know what hurts the most? You’ll never be an actress!”). Infusing this intricate emotional drama are small, piquant, but very telling details, like the subtle importance of Jay’s wearing a condom during his and Claire’s couplings or Andy’s protest at Jay’s assumption of his low libido because of his portliness (and the assumptions for Claire’s straying): “Why do you think I don’t enjoy a good fuck?”
Jay’s relationship with Victor is appositional: the two men are bound together in old friendship and resentment, both experiencing as they are the same problems but not sharing them. Unlike Jay, Victor’s going off the rails, and Jay has to come fetch him one night from a fight at squat full of feral youths Ian knows. Jay calms him down, and the two men lurch through the squat looking like bleary, bedraggled survivors of some self-consuming emotional war. Jay’s steely demeanor attracts one female denizen, Pam (Rebecca Palmer), and they spend a spell happily rutting, but Jay’s distracted, preoccupied manner as he moves to leave causes her to mock him as old fart. The indignity of aging is evoked without sentiment throughout the film, but it takes care to confirm that the characters’ yearnings are based in deeper things than mere anxiety about waning opportunities for fulfilling desire, where Jay, Claire, and Victor’s varieties of panic would be written off as gender-varied menopause, but perceiving them all as beset by gnawing disaffection, having succeeded in standard forms of coupling and social roles, yet finding themselves utterly alienated and unfulfilled within that success. Jay’s rage at Claire, however, seems to be sourced in the fact that where he couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of acting out such a role, even at the cost of annihilating his sense of self and responsibility.
Intimacy doesn’t tell a dramatically neat story, and perhaps, finally, it fails to live up to all its potential with an equivocating, but admittedly realistic, conclusion. And yet, its ferocity and honesty are often as compelling as anything that can be found in new millennium cinema, particularly in the final scenes in which Jay forlornly begs Claire to stay with him rather than return to Andy, revealing just how deep the roots their carnal union planted have now grown. It’s worth noting finally that Intimacy is an interesting cross-cultural oddity, a French film in most respects, but one made in London and infused with a very post-’70s London sensibility—a revealing and fortunate confluence of energies.