Kerry Fox and Mark Rylance in Intimacy (2001)


(director/writer: Patrice Chéreau; screenwriters: Anne-Louise Trividic/based on the stories “Intimacy” and “Night Light” by Hanif Kureishi; cinematographer: Éric Gautier; editor: François Gedigier; music: Éric Neveaux; cast: Mark Rylance (Jay), Kerry Fox (Claire), Timothy Spall (Andy), Alastair Galbraith (Victor), Philippe Calvario (Ian), Marianne Faithful (Betty), Susannah Harker (Susan), Rebecca Palmer (Pam), Fraser Ayres (Dave); Runtime: 119; Empire Pictures; 2001)

“It’s a brave art film only because of its porno sex scenes, but it is not necessarily a perceptive one.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

French writer/director Patrice Chéreau’s “Intimacy” is his first English language film. It is anything but intimate, as it is mostly a graphically sexual pic. It’s a darkly photographed encounter between two desperate and lonely middle-aged strangers: the slender, gaunt faced and eyebrow scarred Jay (Mark Rylance) and the full-figured Claire (Kerry Fox), who meet every Wednesday afternoon for sex in Jay’s south London flat. They do no conversing. He doesn’t even know her name, and seems to care so little for her that he doesn’t even shave the stubble off his beard until he goes to work; and, we never learn how they met. The film follows in the footsteps of Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris,” but fails to get above its pornographic leanings. It’s a brave art film only because of its porno sex scenes, but it is not necessarily a perceptive one. In one scene the New Zealander Kerry has the Shakespearean actor’s cock in her mouth. The sex act comes without foreplay or tenderness; and, I might add, the sex is not erotic. Only a man director could shoot a sex scene this way and think that it would be appealing to a woman.

The film opens as the couple is first seen in the trendy Soho bartender Jay’s dumpy flat where they immediately rip off their clothes, touch each other all over their naked bodies, and only pause while he puts on a condom (a good advertisement for safe sex!). They have sex while grunting, and after their afternoon quickie she quietly leaves and disappears into London’s crowded streets. The couple seems interesting only when naked and having sex, while dressed they have nothing to say and give off bad vibes. This kind of anonymous sexual encounter happens for a few times and we know nothing about Claire, but we observe that Jay is a bitter man who divorced his wife and left her with their two kids six years ago. Jay seems to be going nowhere. His dreams of being a musician no longer are realistic, as he puts everything into his occupation as head bartender. In one scene he takes his anger out on a pretentious new gay bartender whom he contemptuously says wants to be an actor, the Frenchman Ian (Philippe Calvario). He later on pours his heart out to him while searching for answers as to why his life is so empty. The banal advice he receives from his gay co-worker is as useless as his used condom.

Finally out of curiosity or in the bartender’s tendency to screw up whatever he touches, he follows his mystery fuck by public transportation and learns that she’s married, has a son, and is an actress appearing in a fringe basement theater located in a pub. She is in a production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. It is also apparent that she’ll never make it as a professional actress because she lacks talent. Her husband is a colorful and amiable cab driver, Andy (Timothy Spall-he’s the spitting image of the former American character actor Percy Helton), whom Jay accidentally meets at the theater and chats him up in the pub. Not satisfied to let things be, the nasty disposition of Jay takes hold and he intimates in a sly off-hand manner that he’s banging his wife. He can’t stop his jealous harangue and does everything in his power to torment the affable cabbie, as he aims to ruin Andy’s marriage as his was ruined. It seems that Jay really hates women.

When Claire speaks to her confidante, an aspiring actress with no talent who is attending her acting night-class, Betty (Marianne Faithfull), she confides that she died inside. We are to understand from this confessional coming after her emotional crack up during the class, that intimacy itself is dead. Unfortunately, the pic couldn’t come up with a sound way to find closure for its slight story. It could have ended with Claire made aware that her theater acting was not as good a performance as when she was in bed with Jay. It could have ended when Andy rails into his wife for deceiving him. But it ended with Jay coming to the conclusion that he’s a loser and someone who has nothing to say. In real life such relationships come and go, and life goes on as the affair will soon become a dim memory and even the wild emotions of the moment will probably become tame in time.

The performers take great risks. The handheld camera is unflinching. The physical contact is detailed. But where does it all lead? The unpleasant confrontational scenes and the background scenes showing the din of the busy London street traffic gave the film a reality of its own. Those downbeat scenes were the best scenes in the film. The cad, stuck in this glum environment, learns his lesson when he thinks he has fallen in love with someone he never knew. She was seeking some happiness from her unhappy marriage and he was seeking comfort from his loneliness, and anything further couldn’t be communicated as they both tried to buy a few moments of joy. But after the film establishes that sex can be broken down to some grunts, sighs, and lustful urges, in a film adapted from the stories by Hanif Kureishi, the emotional part of the story couldn’t get an honest grip on itself. All the film succeeded in doing was blur the lines between acting and real life, as it ended in the same unspoken way it began — both characters are unable to communicate with others because they don’t understand their own actions. Though, the film gave it a nice try to say something more memorable. And it should, at least, be applauded for the effort.


REVIEWED ON 6/29/2002 GRADE: C +