The mysterious woman who walks into the office of a middle-aged psychiatrist one day, late for her first appointment, brings the faint air of femme fatale with her: the black gloves, the darting eyes, the easy tears, the way she smokes -- and her faux phone number, which is actually the weather hotline. She talks about her sexless marriage, and her increasingly distant husband, who wants her to make love to another man -- any man, he doesn't really care.
This is a lot for a milquetoast tax lawyer to hear. For Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) has mistakenly unburdened herself to William (Fabrice Luchini), whose office is down the hall from the shrink whose name Anna plucked from the yellow pages. William would correct her, except his drab life consists of little more than a gal pal (with sporadic benefits) whose affable new boyfriend he immediately resents and dislikes. In the evening, he gazes out his window at the life going on around him: a couple copulates against a bedroom wall, another bickers in the kitchen -- and an old man sits alone, reading a book. William wants a piece of the action, even if it hurts.
The premise of Patrice Leconte's Intimate Strangers, another sullen French drama about relationships, is more than a little bit contrived, and it doesn't really help that Leconte (The Man on the Train) stages it in realistic settings and often photographs it with a twitchy hand-held camera. In contrast to this contemporary look, the story of Intimate Strangers feels more like the sort of Hollywood melodrama whose visual style is now unfashionable with French directors, who once were enamored of it.
Intimate Strangers takes its subject matter very seriously, and it isn't afraid to revolve around an unglamorous protagonist. Anna quickly uncovers William's deception, and as they continue to reveal themselves -- she to him, he to the shrink down the hall -- their furtive passions smolder. "Changing yourself is delicate work," the real shrink tells William. But of course, these two sad people do change -- as does Leconte's lighting scheme, from darkness to light -- thanks to the "incurable sickness" called love.
It might have been slightly more interesting if William had turned his own informal therapy sessions into advice for his quivering new client. But that doesn't happen, and it's often hard to get past this story's manipulations to concentrate on its quotidian tragedies. When a smitten William moonwalks (surprisingly well) to Wilson Pickett's "In the Midnight Hour," you can see screenwriter Jérí´me Tonnerre reaching for effect. He and Leconte can finally manage only an ersatz melancholy in their unsatisfying tale. In French, with subtitles.