French director Patrice Leconte specializes in movies about lonely, eccentric souls who seem ordinary enough to neighbors or passing acquaintances, but who secretly harbor peculiar secrets and obsessions. In his 1990 charmer The Hairdresser's Husband, for example, a middle-aged man considers an average trim and shave at the local salon to be the zenith of sensual delights; in 2002's The Man On The Train, a mild-mannered retiree hosts a grizzled crook in his home and quietly fantasizes about the outlaw lifestyle. At his best, Leconte captures strangers intimately, so it naturally follows that his latest film, Intimate Strangers, marks a confident return to form after a brief run of impersonal projects and mediocrities.
Confining the action mainly to the four walls of an office space, though with some subtle cinematic touches, Leconte begins with a premise that sounds like a silly comedy of misunderstanding, but evolves into a deeper, more complicated undertaking. Late for her first appointment with psychiatrist Michel Duchaussoy, Sandrine Bonnaire accidentally stumbles into the office of tax attorney Fabrice Luchini, who listens patiently and attentively as she discusses her marital problems. (Leconte doesn't let the audience know Luchini's real profession until later, but the lawyer's deer-in-the-headlights expression gives it away.) Comfortable with this illusory doctor-patient relationship, Luchini takes weekly sessions with Bonnaire, continuing even after the truth is revealed. Each has a reason: She takes comfort in a good listener, while he is falling in love.
In a key moment, Duchaussoy speculates that a tax attorney isn't that much different than a psychiatrist, because both deal with "what to declare and what to hide." During Bonnaire and Luchini's exchanges, the film insightfully probes into the things that are said and the intense feelings that are merely implied, buzzing at a low level just beneath the surface. Though their relationship is premised on a lie, they're able to forge a certain level of trust, even though Luchini's clear longing for his fake patient remains bottled up in nerves. For Bonnaire, the therapy ironically fulfills the promise of personal growth, which emboldens her to confront her domineering husband and change the course of her life. But Luchini, a prototypical Leconte hero, is the one who really needs some time in the chair, because he doesn't know how to get what he wants. In Intimate Strangers, as in other Leconte movies, he seems like the type of character who would rather retreat into private fantasy than pursue his desires. Yet without losing any of its teasing ambiguities, the film supplies his story with a wonderfully gratifying coda.