In 1999, acclaimed French director Patrice Leconte caused a fuss with some inflammatory words aimed at French film critics. Leconte felt that the relentless put-downs of French filmmaking by the nation’s own reviewers were endangering the future of the art. This was not a self-interested defense; rather, Leconte sought to emphasize that films are to be enjoyed as well as analyzed. Today, on a sunny afternoon at the end of the Seattle Film Festival, Leconte is reluctant to reminisce about the hubbub. “That story is an old story. I don’t know if I want to start it again.”
“Nevertheless…” The feelings that first caused the stir are clearly still alive. “What I expect of a movie reviewer is that he should love cinema as much as I do. I was very angry when they wrote about my movie because I was thinking, ‘Shit, they don’t even like it!’ But I didn’t ask them to be nice to me. I just wanted them to have as much passion for cinema as I do.”
Leconte is not cantankerous or gruff, as so many directors can be when defending their passion. He’s good-humored, playful, enthusiastic—so enthusiastic, in fact, that he seems bothered only by those who fail to share his enthusiasm for the joys of filmmaking. He offers his impression of most film reviewers: “When you see a movie reviewer you say, ‘What do you do this afternoon?’” He then squares his shoulders and hunches over like a man under stress, and mimics the miserable critic: “I have a movie at two o’clock and another movie at five o’clock.” Then, he relaxes, offering an apologetic yet impish grin to the reviewer taking notes.
Perhaps it’s easier to laugh this year, at this festival and with this film—Intimate Strangers. Leconte’s reputation as one of today’s most versatile directors has increased in recent years through projects like The Widow of St. Pierre—an ambitious and panoramic historical drama—and the exquisitely intimate, room-sized character study, Man on the Train. The release of Intimate Strangers met with a warm reception at the Seattle festival, where Leconte was welcomed as the guest of honor and audiences enjoyed a retrospective of his films.
Like Man on the Train—indeed, like most of his acclaimed works—Intimate Strangers is a drama involving two strangers awakened to their own limitations and confinements by a dialogue that suggests the possibility of liberation, romance and adventure. They are each tempted to break the codes by which they live and try a new language.
In 1989’s Monsieur Hire, the film that presented Leconte to the international scene as an up-and-coming talent, he told the story of an aging, methodical man who becomes enthralled with a stranger as she reveals more and more to him through her apartment window across the alley.
A year later, The Hairdresser’s Husband won acclaim and a César Nomination for its delicate portrayal of a romance between a sensual hairdresser and her admirer. More recently, in Girl on the Bridge, a passionately erotic (and yet sexless) romance was kindled between a weathered knife-thrower and a lost soul who regains a taste for life as the circus performer’s human target.
In Intimate Strangers, William (Fabrice Luchini) and Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire of Monsieur Hire) are another secretive pair who meet and discover a mutual hunger for something beyond their stifling lives.
William is a tax advisor who grew up in a stuffy old building. His office is decorated with timeworn volumes, remnants of his father’s business and even toys from his childhood. He has never known any world but this one. Thus, when Anna stumbles into his office thinking he’s a therapist, the novelty of the error leads him to conceal his credentials. He merrily plays along while this exotic beauty spills her personal secrets for him. Luchini’s performance subtly reveals William’s conflicting feelings of curiosity, bewilderment, fear and desire. His pangs of conscience are unable to repress his giddy delight in the charade. We see most of the story through William’s eyes, and his sad, haunted face becomes engagingly comical and eventually enraptured by this marvel that has graced his quiet routine.
Anna is bound by a different sort of chain. Bonnaire plays her as though she’s finding, through confession (or perhaps invention), her true personality. As she sheds layers of protective clothing with each visit to William’s office, she grows more confident … and sexier, too. She’s testifies to a dead marriage, which leaves her suffering from neglect and abuse. Her husband, she confesses, hasn’t been intimate with her in six months, and she is lonely and lost. At least, that’s what she tells William. Before long, the poor man is stuck in a Hitchcockian quandary, trying to learn the truth from the confines of his office the way Monsieur Hire watched the mysterious Alice.
Intimate Strangers may seem, at first glance, like a film condoning the adventure of illicit affairs. But the flame ignited in William and Anna by their verbal fan dances foregoes the typical rush into sex and exposes instead the potential of each to overcome their fears, patch up their wounds and escape through trust and revelation into a better life. William confides in Anna, and in doing so, he discovers that he can be charming—even sexy. Likewise, Anna learns that a relationship built without faith or communication is a hollow and feeble structure. The central issue isn’t marital fidelity; it’s something deeper, something that should be the backbone of a marriage—intimacy.
“You may think it’s very presumptuous, but I really hope that my movies are going to turn people into better people,” Leconte explains. Holding his finger and thumb an inch apart, he adds, “Even if it’s just that much … that’s something. Today there are a lot of movies that I feel are trying to make us worse. What I’d like to do with as little means as I have … is to make people better.”
When he’s assured his films are received by most film enthusiasts with gratitude, he nods appreciatively, and responds with a story. “Right after the release of Girl on the Bridge, I met a guy on the street—somebody I didn’t know. He came up to me and shook my hand and said, ‘I just saw Girl on the Bridge. Thank you so much for the movie. Thanks to that movie, I realized that I was not in love enough with my wife.’ I thought, ‘Good, I didn’t make that movie for nothing.’”
Leconte’s characters resonate with their viewers—despite their unusual histories and bizarre obsessions—because each one becomes a detailed metaphor of a life that needs broader horizons. The spaces these people inhabit are similarly revealing. In Intimate Strangers, Leconte’s longtime cinematographer Eduardo Serra (Girl with the Pearl Earring) transforms William’s dull office space into a handsome backdrop that, like William, is full of ghosts. By contrast, the last act culminates in an exhilarating glow and a brilliant final frame, a sun-warmed room that lacks history and shines with potential.
These close quarters are the places where Leconte’s storytelling flourishes. “When you are telling a story about two main characters,” he explains, “it is easier to keep your concentration on them. I can’t imagine keeping my concentration on a lot of different people. I have great admiration for Robert Altman. In a lot of his movies there are a lot of people. It’s crazy. I can’t imagine me doing that. I prefer to work with few people.” A glint comes into his eye. “Ah, but … in The Widow of St. Pierre, there are three!!”
Indeed. The Widow of St. Pierre stands out from the pack of Leconte’s “flirtation” films. There are ever-so-subtle suggestions of attraction between Madame La (Juliette Binoche)—the kind and gentle wife of a French captain—and a condemned killer (Emir Kusturica) confined to the jail at their fort, a silent giant of a man whose temper and drunkenness led him to a fateful error. Binoche gives Madame La a charitable beauty, an irrepressible grace and generosity that—were it not given a boundary by her marital ties to the captain (Daniel Auteuil)—would probably lead her to an end as nasty as that which awaits this simple-minded, remorseful convict.
But even more intriguing than the possibility of infidelity is the passion St. Pierre’s Captain has for his wife, and the love she clearly has for him. In this rarest of French dramas, it’s the marriage that provides liberation, not the infidelity. Movies don’t usually offer us marriages as admirable and attractive as theirs.
When asked if the marriage of Captain Jean and Madame La reflects the devotion that has carried Leconte’s own marriage through so many years, he bristles. “How do you know that I’m a married man?” But then he smiles graciously and throws down a challenge: “Ah, but do you know how many years I have been married?”
Sheepishly, I venture, “If memory serves, you must be nearing 30 years together.”
“You are right… 33 years!” He is visibly pleased with the fact. “You can’t live with the same wife for so many years without storms and hurricanes. I knew it. We knew it. But we married anyway and have remained together for thirty-three years. It’s unusual in France, and in America, to be married so long.” He laughs, as if having an epiphany. “I suspect that my revelation may get me cast in Jurassic Park! Married people from my generation are like an endangered species!”
Still, The Widow of St. Pierre does, in the end, become a story of infidelity—of divorce not from marriage, but from the law. The brave captain, driven by conscience and inspired by his wife’s compassion, realizes that his office disallows the possibility of bestowing mercy and grace upon the remorseful and penitent convict. He makes a fateful decision in hopes of freeing a man caught in the harsh machinery of human justice. Once again, the central issue of Leconte’s films is clear—the stifling nature of the lives we build for ourselves, and how we long to be born again into some new life, saved by some intervention or grace, liberated from restrictive contracts and the regrets that haunt them.
But what draws him to this theme again and again?, I ask. What draws him to heroes who transgress their routines to find freedom? Leconte pauses, deep in thought, and then speaks excitedly in French, turning to the translator so he can respond with enthusiasm rather than use his skilled but cautious English.
“There is something very curious and interesting in what you are saying. There is nothing more interesting than meeting someone who casts a new light on your work. I have never thought about it, but you’re absolutely right in what you say about the obsession in my movies’ main characters. It’s true that the situations revolve around the temptation of transgressing something that is forbidden. I really thank you, because it’s something that I’ve discovered thanks to you.”
He then confirms that, of the varied characters in his repertoire, the passionate 19th-century captain is the one with whom he identifies most—or rather, the personality he aspires to be. “I really like the Captain,” says Leconte. “He’s able to give such an absolute love. I would like to have the same love.
“I identify easily with most of the characters in my movies. And I think that’s the least you should do … identify one after the other with each character [in a story].” He recalls identifying with Adele, the knife-thrower’s target in Girl on the Bridge. “During the shooting of that film,” Leconte says, “I received as many knives as I threw.”
Sometimes, his empathy for his characters haunts him after his work on a picture is finished. “I find that very interesting … the question of what happens to the characters after the movies are over. At the end of Girl on the Bridge, I’m not worrying about the two of them. But at the end of The Hairdresser’s Husband, I’m very worried for Antoine (Jean Rochefort). Things will probably not go well.”
And what about Intimate Strangers’ Anna and William? He smiles. “They’re going to be all right.”
On that hopeful note, our time together is up. Before I can thank him, he actually jogs around the large table to shake my hand, generous to the last, as if he were not the special guest but the host. “Merci beaucoup,” he says. “Thanks for shedding some light on my work. So … now I know …” Beaming with pleasure, he exclaims, “I am a filmmaker of transgression!”