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The Talking Cure

Secret confessions in French drama

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French director Patrice Leconte's previous film, Man On the Train, was about an unlikely, serendipitous relationship between two opposites. French pop icon Johnny Hallyday played a career criminal and Jean Rochefort an excitement-starved aristocrat whose paths crossed in a provincial village. Leconte suggested that friendships could develop despite the unlikeliest conditions, as both men tried on the other's reality for a while.

The macho revisionism of two different men wondering what life would have been like in a different skin gave Man on the Train a metaphysical kick, but Intimate Strangers, Leconte's latest, has some of its emotional force diluted by a conventional "will they or won't they" romance.

Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) skitters into tax lawyer William's (Fabrice Luchini) office like a spider. With her preference for layers of sweaters, long skirts and other psychological bundling, she is the picture of anxious, furtive gloominess.

The French apparently often work out of home offices and fail to identify their front doors. And so Anna mistakes William for her new psychotherapist down the hall. She plops into his chair, appraises his nondescript office and begins to dump her myriad emotional and sexual baggage in his lap. It's the kind of pretext that could ignite some Sandra Bullock or Kate Hudson comedic drivel. But as usual, Leconte uses that initial misunderstanding for a deft, thoughtful -- and droll -- analysis of an improbable friendship.

Reluctant to cleave his relationship with this fascinatingly distraught, emotionally forthcoming lady, William tries to continue the ruse a little longer. But even after the jig is up, Anna keeps coming back. William may not be a psychotherapist, but he has the disposition of one. He's like a kind of fantasy man who is content to do nothing but listen and empathize.

As the quack therapy sessions continue, William begins to consult the actual psychotherapist down the hall, as well as his ex-girlfriend, for guidance in how to handle his increasingly neurotic patient. Both therapists and tax lawyers get into the nitty-gritty of their client's private lives, but the psychoanalyst lays some wisdom on William: Tax lawyers can solve problems, psychoanalysts recognize their limits.

William is the poster child for reserved decorum, a man with a perfectly organized desk and a fetish for fastidious business suits and neckties. But Leconte is always interested in the mismatch between exterior and interior. From his collection of tin toys (one of which he unearths from its box with such rapt delight it almost breaks your heart) to his confession to Anna that he once longed to be an explorer, William's reality is just something he has settled into, not the sum total of his being.

William's multilayered repression is far more sexy and intriguing in both Leconte and Luchini's hands than the alternative: the SUV-driving overgrown jock his former girlfriend is dating. "It's enormous!" William shrieks in Freudian double-entendre, upon first glimpse of the super-man's super-car. Nerdy without the fidgety self-awareness of the geeks played by Woody Allen, William gives a nobility to nerd-dom, suggesting that sometimes the superior coping mechanism is to listen, wait and ponder rather than spring into action.

William is ultimately more interesting than the escalating romantic dynamic between him and Anna, whose layers of bag lady woolens are traded for flirty dresses and cleavage-baring T-shirts. As an effort at maximizing the intrigue, Leconte uses some Bernard Herrmann-style music to suggest a build to thriller payoff, though that build is largely a ruse. The film's first half, with its promise of deep mysteries cracked wide open, never materializes in its less satisfying second half. Instead, the biggest thrill in Intimate Strangers is mild-mannered, romantically tortured William. In an upending of just about every contemporary reality TV assumption, it is William's tightly wound repression that proves far more fascinating than any of Anna's gut-spilling confessions.

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