movie review by
David Gurevich


(© 2001 Empire Pictures. All rights reserved.)

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With all the brouhaha The Last Tango in Paris caused almost thirty years ago, only now do we get the sense how far ahead of its time Bertolucci’s film was. Only in the last few years, the frustrated men who would not settle for once-a-week sex routine have become de rigueur in French films (e.g., L’Ennui). Now this not-quite-New Wave, led by a French director Patrice Chereau (Queen Margot, Those Who Love Me Will Take the Train), has crossed La Manche and carved out a beachhead in England. I hope it will be repelled without the Royal Air Force getting involved.

Thirty years ago, Intimacy, Chereau’s landing vehicle, would have drawn the ire of censors and long lines of filmgoers. In the year 2001, the scenes of a man and a woman coupling amid debris with anatomical precision, animal grunts, and not an iota of humanity can put you to sleep. In thirty years, the audiences have grown up beyond the "pass-the-butter" remarks, and it takes us about five seconds of this joyless act to figure out the score: both Jay (Mark Rylance) and Claire (Kerry Fox) are middle-aged, middle-class, unhappy, and alienated. So? Is this enough to, er, arouse our interest? Just to make sure we got it, Chereau has the couple change positions a few more times and extends every scene for another good five minutes. He may have expected kudos for artistic courage of showing bodies that are not from Playboy and GQ, but we’re not in 1972 any more.

The comparisons with Bertolucci’s film may be unfair, but they are inevitable – and Chereau loses across the board. Brando’s character’s misery was earned; Jay simply could not deal with family responsibilities, so he left his wife and two kids. Bertolucci had the golden, luminous Paris, and a grand old apartment that was aching to be restored to its former splendor; Chereau counters with the unkept bedsitter out of a Mike Leigh movie that Jay and his sometime roommates refuse to maintain out of sheer disgust with themselves and their quarters. Bertolucci used a Gato Barbieri sweeping operatic score to take your breath away; Chereau counters with street sounds – honking, clanging, screeching – that properly belong in a sound-system commercial.

Chereau based his script on a novel by Hanif Kureishi – not a great writer, but certainly a "hot" one. Kureishi has always gone for shocking effect; but what worked superbly in Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette, his most famous oeuvre on film, here leaves you cold. The plot is enveloped in a gloom of predictability. It took Brando a whole film to get impatient with the Maria Schneider character, but Jay, a slight man with a perpetual sneer on his face, grows tired of Claire’s refusal to show interest in him outside the bed within the first half hour. We shouldn’t be surprised, for what else is he going to do in this script? (Thought I’d never write this, but, coming from a "hot" British writer and a "cool" French director, this film is strikingly misogynistic. They may be talking in interviews about "our need for human connection"; is this a new name for the male ego trip?)

After some rather unsuspenseful sleuthing, Jay discovers that Claire is a failed actress who teaches drama privately and acts in a basement production – London’s version of off-off-off – of The Glass Menagerie. Jay, a failed musician himself, keeps coming to see the show, befriends her jolly stout cabbie husband (superficial cliches abound: a sensitive slender lover and a blue-collar fat husband), and engages him in conversations that verge on revealing the truth. In Intimacy, this passes for tension.

A film that has two main characters who are seriously unhappy with their lives and are seeking remedy in mechanical sex every Wednesday needs humanity like fresh air, and Chereau has Jay making a half-hearted attempt to reach out to Claire in the final sequence; but it’s too little, too late. Mark Rylance is a respected Shakespearian actor (currently the director of the Globe Theater), but here he’s strictly a sneer and an occasional smirk. Kerry Fox, who plays Claire, was so good in The Last Days of Chez Nous and An Angel at My Table, but in Intimacy all she is allowed is suffering, reduced to red eyes and sniffling nose. No, wait: she bumps her head on assorted objects a lot during the sex scenes. You don’t expect simple human consideration and caring from her lover. We have something bigger here: La Passion. Too bad it fails to impassion the viewer.

[rating: 1 of 4 stars]