directed by Patrice Ch鲥au with Mark Rylance, Kerry Fox, and Timothy Spall runs Oct. 26-Nov. 1 at Varsity
IT'S NO SECRET that porn has become such a huge and accepted part of the new media economy, whether by Internet, cable, satellite, or wireless chat lines, that the sight of two actors simulating fairly graphic sex fails to elicit the same shock it did back in the era of Bertolucci's 1972 Last Tango in Paris. Times change, and no one would mistake this English-language debut by Patrice Ch鲥au (Queen Margot) for either porn or highbrow art film. In fact, as based on stories by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, My Son the Fanatic), Intimacy is more kitchen-sink realism rendered in an almost documentary fashion (unlike Tango's beautiful cinematography). In place of Tango's rather pretentious monologues, we have the labored, arrhythmic breathing of clumsy intercourse between a man and woman meeting for wordless Wednesday afternoon trysting. In place of Brando, we have Mark Rylance (Angels and Insects), and for Maria Schneider, Kerry Fox (the physician flatmate in Shallow Grave).
Jay and Claire barely know each other, but that's the point. Their agreement is "no agreement," they say, but we can easily guess that such a no-strings-attached sex-buddy arrangement will go awry. Ch鲥au rather bluntly establishes Jay's past intimacy problems with flashbacks to the wife and kids he abandoned; now he lives in squalor, proudly embracing his dead-end job as a London bartender. Impulsively, he follows Claire one day, eventually discovering her life as an amateur thespian and meeting her affable, fat, but not- so-dumb husband (Topsy-Turvy's wonderful Timothy Spall).
So having ruined one relationship, Jay sets off to possibly destroy another, stalking Claire, baiting her husband, and befriending their young son. He's asking for a second chance, in effect, which amounts to Intimacy's fundamental, insubstantial irony. Though both characters are equally naked and undignified, the movie's all about Jay, while Claire's character remains underwritten. Why this imbalance? Both Fox and Intimacy earned top honors at this year's Berlin Film Festival, but those seem rewards for bravery, not insight. (Yes, Fox does take a penis in her mouth, but again—how shocking is that, really?)
As his film boils down to a conventional romantic triangle (devoid of actual romance), you wish that Ch鲥au's co-written script were more worthy of his actors' courage. Intimacy strives above all to be authentic, and the performers' splotchy pale skin and sweaty grunting on the floor is undeniably convincing and impressive. As with several recent French pictures (L'Humanit鼯I>, Romance, Baise-Moi), this new full-frontal candor begins to seem normal, but it still lacks a filmic rationale beyond honesty for its own sake. Ch鲥au forgets that doomed affairs last longer in memory for their stories than for the sex.