Besotted, like so many of his compatriots, with Alfred Hitchcock, Patrice Leconte has been making elegantly turned, wigged-out comedies by the pound since the 1970s, some blacker than others, and more often than not overlaid with the creepy veneer of a suspense thriller. Aside from Monsieur Hire, a brilliant 1989 Simenon adaptation that put Leconte on the map this side of the Atlantic, I’m not sure the form is justified. In any case, Leconte is by temperament a humanist and incapable of the chilly distance that Hitchcock famously kept from his characters. Just about every film in this prolific director’s repertoire — from Monsieur Hire, through the sweetly nutso The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990), from the cerebral Ridicule (1996) to The Girl on the Bridge (1999) and last year’s The Man on the Train — is a twisted but warm story about two mismatched people muddling their way through to a liberating intimacy. Leconte’s movies are invariably brainy and deadpan funny, but lately his work has given off a whiff of fatigue — inevitable, perhaps, for a man who cranks out a movie a year — and the faint grinding sound of an idée fixe that’s been worked to death. Leconte himself seems aware of this: At the Berlin Film Festival, earlier this year, he introduced Intimate Strangers, his 20th feature, with the announcement that it might be his last love story.
As with all Leconte’s films, Intimate Strangers’ subject is the way an unexpected encounter can drag long-suppressed yearnings to the surface in the most emotionally attenuated lives. As always, too, the action — if that’s what you call a plot in which one person talks her head off and the other listens — hinges on voyeurism, in this case of the ears rather than the eyes. Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire), a mousy, anxious young woman buttoned into a frump’s uniform and a virginal beret, walks into the office of a tax accountant and, mistaking him for the psychiatrist next door, proceeds to unload the most intimate details of her troubled marriage. The office is suitably dark and stuffy — there’s even a couch — while the accountant, William, who’s played with tight restraint by the usually frenetic French comic actor Fabrice Luchini, is neat, precise and desiccated, his blue eyes glassy and blank from a lifelong habit of noncommittal professionalism. Still, he’s fascinated by Anna’s confessions, and it’s not until her second “appointment” that he tries to set the record straight, to no avail. By her third visit, Anna has gotten the picture, but despite an angry confrontation, the pair continue their weekly sessions.
Other peripheral characters float in and out of the picture, among them William’s disapproving secretary; his inquisitive former lover; a man purporting to be Anna’s husband; and a garrulous shrink who points out a crucial parallel between his own profession and William’s. At its core, though, Intimate Strangers is another Leconte two-hander, and what resonance it has flows from the increasingly intense connection between these two square pegs. Bonnaire, who launched her career as the pretty young object of Michel Blanc’s obsession in Monsieur Hire, is an actress who, working quietly from within, contains multitudes. There’s something provincial, almost motherly, in her borderline-bland features, but also something wild and generous, and a hint of wry worldliness that has nothing to do with the instinctive French chic of Catherine Deneuve or Emmanuelle Béart. As Anna’s outpourings grow more uninhibited, she seems to expand and grow in confidence. Her wardrobe lightens, and so does the air around her as she comes to trust her confidant. He, on the other hand — except for a brief moment, surely borrowed from The Hairdresser’s Husband, in which he kicks out the traces to the tune of James Brown’s “Sex Machine” — remains shrouded in the shadows of his office and the apartment he’s lived in since he was born, with its lumbering, old-fashioned furniture. Unable himself to open up or level with her, he wonders whether he can believe her increasingly lurid tales of a crippled, controlling husband. Then, when she disappears, he can’t help but try to track her down, which turns out to be the beginning of a kind of awakening.
Leconte, as always, means to explore the gray areas between sexual espionage and love, and there remains something powerful about the fantasy of being listened to, without judgment. Yet the director seems to have arrived at a dead end about where to go with all this. The movie’s middle section feels indistinct and superfluously stretched out, while the impulse to squeeze the story into the frame of a noir thriller, with its insinuating Philip Glass–like score, feels more like an old habit than something integral to the relationship unfolding before us. The ending, though, is lovely, a hint light as the air in William’s new office that Leconte hasn’t exhausted his love stories, so much as his way of telling them.
In Garden State, a likable if flawed comedy that seemed to set younger audiences on fire at Sundance this year, Zach Braff, who also wrote and directed, plays Andrew Largeman, a Los Angeles television actor who’s achieved moderate success despite the fact that he’s been stoned on lithium since he was a boy. Large, as he’s called, comes home to New Jersey for the first time in nine years to attend the funeral of his mother, who has committed suicide, and he spends most of his time hanging out with old high school pals, in part to keep out of the way of his distant father (Ian Holm, improbable in a yarmulke). The movie signs on for the hoary old Hollywood maxim that authenticity lurks everywhere that is not L.A., an idea as beguiling as it is a wishful crock. Mercifully Braff, who grew up in New Jersey, is not sentimental about what authenticity might mean as it applies to Large’s dead-end friends, among them a callow lad employed as a knight in a medieval fast-food restaurant, another who’s a shill for pyramid schemes, and Large’s best friend Mark, a gravedigger played with characteristically potent understatement by Peter Sarsgaard. Star of the oddball NBC sitcom Scrubs, Braff is bright and has a quick ear for vernacular dialogue, and he’s caught the look and the sound of his blitzed, prematurely disillusioned generation, which has had to live with more lack of definition than most. Large’s friends still live with their parents and throw parties where they smoke dope, pop pills and play a sexed-up variant of spin-the-bottle, and though they hover perilously close to being sitcom types and their creator is a tad liberal with the sight gags, Braff stops short of turning them into clowns. They’re living their lives, and the one who’s asleep is Large, even after he has taken himself off lithium.
It’s around this wake-up call that the movie founders. Nothing if not well-connected, Braff snagged Natalie Portman to play his love interest, Sam, a motor-mouthed flake, sunny existentialist and occasional harmless liar whose life is as full of energy and color as Large’s is gray and empty, and who draws out of him the revelations that will set him free. Portman does her best, but this giddy ditz, who might more profitably have been played by Hilary Duff, belongs in the kind of prattling teen movie to which Braff clearly means to give a wide berth. Garden State has some great performances, notably from Jean Smart as Mark’s pothead mother, and a wealth of nicely observed anecdotal bits. By rights the movie should end with a tough-minded, wholly original scene near the end, in which Large says what he needs to say to his bewildered father, and in doing so refreshes the whole meaning of what it means to mend fences with your parents. Instead, it goes out all sugared-up and weepy, like a movie of the week whose casting director really lucked out.
INTIMATE STRANGERS | Directed by PATRICE LECONTE | Written by JERÔME TONNERRE | Produced by ALAIN SARDE | Released by Paramount Classics | At Sunset 5 and Landmark Pavilion
GARDEN STATE | Written and directed by ZACH BRAFF Produced by PAMELA ABDY, RICHARD KLUBECK, GARY GILBERT and DAN HALSTED | Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures