When an actor and actress engage in fellatio on screen, the film world is bound to take notice. The release of French director Patrice Chereau's first English language feature, Intimacy, was an occasion for the usual raising of eyebrows and piquing of curiosity due to the raw authenticity of its sex scenes.
But with the belated showing of Intimacy in Atlanta (thanks to the Peachtree Film Society), a year after its American debut at the New York Film Festival, the much-discussed sex scenes seem less shocking. The real jolt in this film, based upon a novella and a short story by British writer Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), is the grotty, patently unsexy milieu in which the story unfolds. Director Chereau makes no attempt to elevate sex into the tasteful, upper-class erogenous zone of Damage or Romance. Instead, the two strangers at the heart of the film, Jay (Mark Rylance) and Claire (Kerry Fox), face off in a dilapidated, anonymous row house on an undistinguished London block.
The apartment is a squalid projection of the neglected facets of Jay's life. He has left his wife and two young sons, and his new bachelor digs are synonymous not with heady, newfound freedom, but aimless, gnawing unhappiness. The beer cans, piles of towels and mattress on the floor only echo other psychological issues Jay has left unattended. There is something exquisitely satisfying in the ordinariness of both the setting and the people, who might be described as attractive, but who are far from the taut and groomed specimens of typical movie fare.
Each Wednesday, Claire and Jay meet at his apartment for sex. This strange pact begins in progress, so that we never learn how it was first forged, only that it is. The gestures range from the fumbling and unsatisfactory to the ecstatic, but it's more the psychological release than the physical one that seems to draw the pair back again and again. The meetings are an unacknowledged refuge from their more routine lives. Jay has grown bored enough with his family to abandon its false sense of intimacy conveyed in flashbacks of Jay bathing two well-fed, happy boys at his comfortably middle-class townhouse. In another flashback, he shamefully masturbates (all sex in this film being furtive and illicit) while his wife sleeps.
Though the anonymous and detached meetings seem to satisfy both parties, Jay grows restless and longs to get to the root of Claire, a woman whose guiltless sex gnaws at him like a phantom limb. Though he can understand his own desire for commitment-free sex, he is at a loss to understand the same drive in a woman.
As Jay begins to stalk her, we learn that Claire is married to the potato-faced, doltish but still endearing Andy (Mike Leigh regular Timothy Spall), and they have a young son. She acts in amateur productions of The Glass Menagerie in a cramped basement theater beneath a bar. But it's her performance as a blank mystery in her affair with Jay that seems to draw her back to the stage of Jay's grubby mattress. Things eventually turn ugly when Jay becomes enraged by Claire's ability to carry on their surreptitious rendezvous and a normal family life when his own life is in such a shambles.
Intimacy is a difficult, intense, but ultimately rewarding look at the strange subterfuge of human behavior and the multiple personal agendas that are acted out in intimate and anonymous exchanges. Claire, with her sensible, low-heeled shoes and handsome face, and Jay, with a provocative scar threading through his eyebrow, are enigmas who over the course of the film reveal themselves, although only obliquely and unsatisfactorily. Like real people, they defy us to ever fully know them. And sex gets no one closer to the truth. Rather than escape or enlightenment, sex in Intimacy is a bitter reminder of alienation and the distance, even in the most explicit embrace, that separates one person from another.
Cinevision Screening Room is located at 3300 Northeast Expressway, Bldg. 2. Admission is $7.50, $6.50 members. www.peachtreefilm.org. 770-729-8487.