While Intimate Strangers is by no means an embarrassment to French filmmaker Patrice Leconte, it's nonetheless a letdown after his last project, the wise and witty Man on the Train. Once again, Leconte bets his bankroll on a meeting-of-the-minds scenario, with another two very different souls crossing paths for mutual edification via heart-to-heart talk. But the script Leconte has secured from Jérôme Tonnerre lacks the airy whimsy of Claude Klotz' Man on the Train text, approaching its identity games not with a twinkling eye but a brow furrowed in analytic concentration.
It's the story of what happens when a troubled Parisian wife named Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire, of Leconte's Monsieur Hire) seeks out the services of a psychiatrist to help mend her collapsing marriage. Trouble is, the easily confused Anna thinks she's walked into a therapist's office, when she's really entered the domain of tax lawyer William Faber (Fabrice Luchini), whom she talks into taking her "case" before he can figure out what's happened. By the time both parties have spotted the error, Anna has decided to keep seeing William anyway, finding him a serviceable if easily shocked sounding board for her increasingly sordid stories of household humiliation.
If you can believe this wide stretch of a premise (not to mention the idea that the real psychiatrist, located just down the hall from William, would give the unorthodox arrangement his blessing), you're in the clear to dwell on the soul-baring exchanges that ensue as Anna and William go about the business of psychoanalyzing each other. Just don't expect a surfeit of levity: A few laughs ventured at the expense of William's aged secretary fall flat, victims to the film's general solemnity.
Leconte's big idea seems to have been to tart up standard art-house chitchat with a suspense-thriller sheen, and the mix is an odd one at the best of moments. Hitchcockian touches abound, including a jabbing musical soundtrack and some deliberately timed out-of-focus shots; at one point, the plot even makes an overt nod to Rear Window. But these hints of the sinister seldom end up amounting to much. It's about an hour, for instance, before the script acknowledges that Anna's stories may be wholly or partially fabricated something we've been mulling all along only to drop the suggestion with jarring abruptness.
Ultimately, Intimate Strangers is no more than a lesson in the fine art of listening. So it's logical that the movie draws its greatest strength from Luchini's pivotal performance as the all-ears William. He's an odd but unconventionally attractive little man, with a high forehead and a downcast mouth that reminded this reviewer of (honest to God) erstwhile Laugh-In poet Henry Gibson. With Bonnaire's wounded beauty fueling some dicey dialogue about the inscrutability of the female mind, the everyman approachability that Luchini exudes advances a truer thesis: That any problem is surmountable if only we learn to talk about it.