Intimacy (2001): Patrice Chereau First English-Speaking Feature

Based on short stories by the famed British writer Hanif Kureishi, Intimacy, Patrice Chereau’s first English-speaking feature, is a stunningly made film that explores the mysteries of sexual desire in a dauntless way.

Grade: A- (**** out of *****)


This audacious treatment, accompanied by graphic portrayal of sex (showing both male and female frontal nudity), is likely to divide critics and to be slapped with NC-17 rating. However, as a mature drama, boasting superlative performances from Mark Rylance and Kerry Fox, it should play the global festival circuit after initial showings at Sundance and Berlin. An entrepreneurial American distributor should release this fearless arthouse picture in urban centers, where it’s likely to stir discussion among the kind of patrons who have embraced such scandalous films as Romance.

Chereau, still better known for his theatrical and operatic productions, continues to develop as a daring filmmaker who tackles controversial issues in an innovative way. In the underestimated Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, which premiered in Cannes in 1998, he explored the devastating impact of one sudden death on a group of gay and straight friends. In his new movie, which might have been titled Naked, Chereau puts raw sexuality center-stage, while investigating its effects on a trio of characters whose paths crisscross and fates change as a result of one tumultuous encounter.

The first reel depicts a series of rough sexual encounters between Jay (Mark Rylance) and Claire (Kerry Fox). Except for the particular position in which they engage, the scenario is the same: They meet every Wednesday in the shabby basement of Jay’s apartment. As soon as Claire arrives, they undress and engage in wild sex. They then doze a bit before Claire gets up, dresses quickly, and leaves in a taxi cab waiting outside. It’s sex at its most impersonal, with hardly any word exchanged before or after the act.

However, human nature being human nature, Jay develops curiosity about Claire’s identity and begins to follow her. Unexpectedly, he lands at a pub that also functions as a small theater. To his amazement, he observes Claire playing the role of Laura in a modest production of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie. At first, it seems that Jay is the sexual aggressor and the one who benefits the most, but gradually Claire becomes more assertive, to the point where her decision not to show up one Wednesday has detrimental effects on Jay.

Taking elements from Kureishi’s story “Nightlife” (published in the collection Love in a Blue Times) and from the personal memoir Intimacy, scripters Chereau and Anne-Louise Trividic add deeper layers that provide hints, but fortunately never try to explain the complex and troubled persona of their protagonists. It turns out that Jay has walked out on his wife and kid, descending into a state of emotional numbness that can only be described as alienation. Working at a bar, he lives in a house he can’t afford to furnish; blankets are thrown on the carpet where the sex takes plays.

Claire is married to the fat, unattractive but sympathetic Andy (Timothy Spall), whom Jay befriends and later confides in about his liaison. Using a bizarrely cryptic and creepy tone, that recalls Harold Pinter’s play and film Betrayal, Chereau unravels a tangled web of relationships through a series of dramatically explosive confrontations between husband and rival, husband and wife, and finally wife and lover.

Feeling that sex is too important to be left to the pornographers or novelists, European directors have been bolder than American ones in handling sex: Intimacy follows a number of French films (Romance, Pola X, Baise-Mois) that tackled sexual issues.

Philip Kaufman may be the notable exception, an American filmmaker who depicts sexual desire in a nonjudgmental yet dazzling manner (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, the NC-17 Henry and June), as opposed to someone like Paul Verhoeven, who makes ostentatious and phony “sexy” pictures (Basic Instinct, Showgirls).

Catherine Breillat’s Romance was a slow, morose, academic film. A joyless enterprise, it set out to prove a thesis about women’s sexuality, replete with preposterous statements like “he wants to conquer because he’s a man,” or “women are the victims men need for atonement.” In contrast, Intimacy, a much more knowing and attentive film, explores issues that adult viewers often confront in their lives: the temptation and risk of impersonal sex; the line between physical attraction and personal intimacy, the comfort of stable but sexless bonds. Moreover, unlike Romance and other movies, Intimacy does that in an intensely engaging and unpretentious manner.

The film is by no means flawless. A number of secondary characters and subplots don’t work, distracting attention from the far more involving central triangle. For example, the French bartender, who works with Jay and lusts after him, endows the film with an overtly gay sensibility, but he remains an enigma. Chereau also seems uncertain as to what exactly he wants to say in the sequences about Claire as a theater coach, particularly her relationship with an older actress, Betty (Marianne Faithful).

Nonetheless, the film’s merits are beyond dispute, specifically, Rylance’s and Fox’s courageous and powerful performances and the overall technical accomplishment. Chereau’s recent films were imbued with a spirit of inquiry and risk-taking, displaying an edgy, spontaneous style. In Intimacy, the amazing fluidity of Eric Gautier’s lensing, which relies on mobile, hand-held camera, compensates for the rough spots and draggy moments.

A personal film in the way that Those Who Loved Me was, Intimacy provides a link to Chereau’s earlier work, The Wounded Man, and almost succeeds in erasing from memory his overwrought epic, Queen Margot.


Directed by Patrice Chéreau
Produced by Patrick Cassavetti, Jacques Hinstin, Charles Gassot
Screenplay by Anne-Louise Trividic and Patrice Chéreau, based on Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi
Music by Éric Neveux
Cinematography Francois Gedigier
Edited by Karen Lindsay-Stewart
Distributed by Empire Pictures Inc.

Release date: July 27, 2001 (UK)

Running time: 119 minutes
Box office $4 million