Jay (Mark Rylance) is a divorced father of two, who works as head barman in a trendy club. Every Wednesday, Claire (Kerry Fox) visits him at his flat for anonymous sex sessions. No names are exchanged and barely a word is spoken. But soon Jay follows Claire in order to find out more about her. He tracks her down to a pub where she is acting in an amateur production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. There he strikes up an acquaintance with Claire's cabbie husband Andy (Timothy Spall)...
Based on stories by Hanif Kureishi, Intimacy is set in London and has dialogue in English. But the filmmakers are French: director Patrice Chéreau previously made La Reine Margot and Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train (which I reviewed on DVD elsewhere on this site). Stylistically, this film has similarities to the latter, in its use of grainy naturalistic photography, shot in Scope with handheld cameras. Occasionally, the dialogue sounds a little too literary and doesn't quite ring true, an occupational hazard of writing in a language not your own. There's also a clumsy subplot involving Jay's lodger which could have been removed without much loss.
Much has been made of the film's sexual content, in particular a brief shot (and it really is blink or miss it) showing unsimulated oral sex. Yes, the arthouse movie with hardcore sex is nothing new (cf. The Idiots, Romance) but what surprises is the fact that it's in English this time. And there are actors with pre-existing reputations (that is, as actors, not as porn stars or anything else) really doing it on screen. The most obvious precedent is actually earlier, namely Maruschka Detmers's unsimulated fellatio on her co-star in Marco Bellochio's 1986 Devil in the Flesh. (And before then, Lena Nyman in I Am Curious Yellow...okay, penis-kissing isn't the same as a blow job, but it's not very far from it.) The rest of the sex scenes, most of which are in the first forty-five minutes, are simulated, but still realistic. These are meant to be ordinary people having sex here, in early middle age, and they don't have immaculately toned bodies either.
Effective as the sex scenes are, the most compelling scenes are three two-handers in the second half of the film: between Jay and Andy in the pub, Claire and her friend Betty (Marianne Faithfull) after one of the drama classes Claire gives, and finally a vicious confrontation between Andy and Claire in his taxi. None of the characters are played for easy sympathy (Rylance in particular plays Jay in a state of permanent pissed-offness). Fox, who won the Best Actress prize at Berlin for this performance, shows why she's one of the best actresses of her generation. She pulls off the difficult feat of playing an untalented actress. Only once or twice does her accent slip into its native New Zealander. Spall is not to be outdone as Andy, whose chumminess is only on the surface.
Despite its flaws, Intimacy is well worth seeing. It's a brave attempt at a genuinely adult take on sexual relationships in all their emotional messiness and complexity. If it doesn't quite work, it's a commendable effort.