Directed by Patrice Chereau

Patrice Chereau's controversial new film Intimacy begins with thirty-five minutes of graphic sex. Claire (brilliantly played by Kerry Fox) arrives uninvited on her free Wednesday afternoon, knocks, and enters a squalid house flat belonging to Jay (Mark Rylance). Puzzled, he asks "was this agreed?" Apparently not, but without another word they proceed to have sex, at her initiative, on the floor. Their frenzied passion is repeated on subsequent Wednesday afternoons until Jay makes the mistake of trying to find out who Claire really is. And then the spell is broken.

People who expected erotica were disappointed. Roger Ebert, the dean of popular film criticism, describes the opening as "short, brutal, anonymous sex." Ebert expresses distaste and reports the dismissive judgment of Kristine Nordstrom, director of the Women Film Makers' Symposium of Los Angeles: "No woman would be attracted to sex like that," she opined. Nordstrom's premise is that the typical male director projects his 'slam bam thank you ma'am' sexual fantasies onto the screen, where a woman's desires are presented as a gratifying mirror image of what men want. In Intimacy, "[Claire] walks in, they rip off each other's clothes and a few seconds later they're in a frenzy." Nordstrom concluded that "[a]ny woman would know that this movie was directed by a man."

Although I think the feminist criticism misses everything interesting and important about Intimacy, Ebert and Nordstrom's reaction to the opening scene was typical. Most critics were not turned on by watching a man and woman who are determined to give and get everything they can out of the sexual encounter. And not for want of realism: the two actors—he is thin and balding, she is more attractive but not a conventional beauty, and both are pushing forty—are the ones having sex. Chereau films them in semi-darkness so I cannot attest that every sexual act that seemed to take place actually was consummated, but one episode unmistakably shows Kerry Fox with Mark Rylance's penis in her mouth. Chacun a son goût, but most people will find Intimacy's graphic display of sex and nudity neither beautifully erotic nor excitingly pornographic. But it is as real as Chereau means it to be, and real sex can be disturbing. For me it was like being trapped in a room where I felt more like an uncomfortable intruder rather than an aroused voyeur.

Chereau is a serious and sophisticated artist who has directed theater and opera as well as film. He has also been around long enough to understand what turns people on. One can assume he knows that many women, as Nordstrom asserts, prefer a man who spends "time being tender and sweet and showing that he cares for her." But his ambitions were artistic not erotic. Chereau was confronting our sexuality, exploring its disruptive power, not trying to arouse either the men or the women in the audience.

Critics have compared Chereau's Intimacy to Bertolucci's 1972 Last Tango in Paris. The comparisons are prompted by obvious similarities. In Last Tango, Marlon Brando meets Maria Schneider when they are both looking to rent the same empty Paris apartment. Total strangers, they meet and almost immediately have sex against a wall in an empty room. The sexual connection works for them and both experience a kind of liberation. They return to the empty flat to perform every sexual act they (or perhaps we) have imagined. The relationship ends when Brando, an older man in the film, proposes marriage to Schneider. But the audience sees nothing graphic; everything is suggested. And although the sex is short, brutal and anonymous, Pauline Kael was not alone in describing it as the "erotic bombshell" of its time.

But times and sexual mores change. In the current culture, sex is more obsession than liberation. Kids watch faux pornography on MTV;Cosmo readers learn that proficiency in oral sex is the foundation of a happy marriage; for men, sex is often seen as a matter of performance, and with Viagra the show never ends. Chereau believes that in some important sense even class struggle "has moved inside the body" and become sexualized: it is the new millennium struggle of all against all for sexual power. Obsessive sex offers no liberation, but only repetition and the search for new aphrodisiac rituals, new partners, and new limit experiences. It is this desperate sexuality, isolating people rather than connecting them, that ultimately intrigues Chereau. His film is more questioning, more troubled, more relevant to our times than Bertolucci's sultry, wish-fulfilling, tango dream.

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Hanif Kureishi, whose recent fiction was the basis of the screenplay forIntimacy, has written an illuminating essay about his collaboration with Chereau. It all started when Chereau, like Claire, knocked on the door one day. Although Kureishi does not mention it, Chereau may have come to him because of Kureishi's early fame and Oscar nomination for the screenplay of My Beautiful Laundrette, another erotic bombshell in its day. The story is about two beautiful young men—one English (Daniel Day Lewis), the other Pakistani (Gordon Warrecke)—who have a West Side Story love affair in a lower class London community. It is the kind of neighborhood where, after a few pints at the pub, the xenophobic skinheads go out for some Paki-bashing. And it is Daniel Day Lewis, publicly and unrestrainedly kissing his Pakistani lover that transforms cross-racial hostility into its erotic counterpart. Pauline Kael marveled at what she experienced as My Beautiful Laundrette's "thrills of perilous display." In his essay on the making of Intimacy,Kureishi notes that what was shocking in the 1980s is now commonplace; you cannot turn on the television in London "without seeing boys snogging, particularly on the sports channels."

Kureishi seems to want us to know that he is straight, in contrast to his collaborator, Patrice Chereau, "a gay French man." Whatever his own sexual preferences may be, Kureishi has a fertile sexual imagination. In his early days he wrote pseudonymous pornography, along with some plays and My Beautiful Laundrette. Chereau's original idea was to collaborate on a cinematic version of Kureishi's novel, Intimacy, which describes a man's reaction to his divorce. But after much brainstorming, Chereau decided to base his film on a recent Kureishi short story about a man and a woman whose only connection is that they meet for sex on Wednesday afternoons. Chereau also used bits from the novel—Rylance's character is recently divorced—and from other Kureishi short stories, but decided ultimately to have his own screen writer, a French woman, write the screenplay. Only the title of the projected film remained unchanged.

Kureishi's description of his collaboration with Chereau sounds like someone trying to have the last word about a relationship. One can imagine these two men circling around each other, their creative narcissism at risk, testing to see who would be dominant; who would give and who would take. In the end, Kureishi's account suggests that Chereau took what he wanted and went his own creative way. Chereau invited Kureishi to the penultimate screening of the rushes and expressed little interest in editorial input. One can understand why Kureishi compares the collaboration to the affair—Chereau did use him. Though Chereau has made collaborative films in different European countries (one in Germany and now this one in England), Intimacy is his film, animated by his French sensibilities, despite its London setting and British actors.

According to Kureishi, "Patrice seemed interested in the power of impersonal sexuality, in passion without relationship, in the way people can be narcissistically fascinated by one another's bodies and their own sexual pleasure, while keeping away strong feeling and emotional complexity….Patrice and I talked about keeping the camera close to the bodies; not over-lighting them, or making them look pornographically enticing or idealized…The point is to look at how difficult sex is, how terrifying, and what a darkness and obscenity our pleasures can be."

This approach to sex comes from Freud, not Sigmund but his grandson Lucian, the painter whose hyperrealistic aesthetic Chereau avowedly adopted for his film. One need only look at some of Lucian Freud's early nudes to understand Chereau's interest. The Freud painting on display in the new Tate Modern's exhibition of nudes is an amazing achievement: a woman's naked body is fully revealed, but entirely without erotic suggestion. It is as though the artist has stepped out of social reality and all its erotic baggage to see and reveal the thing in itself. Like Chereau's film, Freud's nudes are arresting without being alluring.

Roger Ebert, to his credit, acknowledged that he may have missed something about Intimacy by relying on the barometer of his sexual arousal. He admitted to being puzzled about the psychology of Jay, the head barman in a busy London club. He speculates that Jay's bitterness at the world may express repressed homosexual impulses. Ebert, I think, is listening to the wrong Freud. Jay is the new millennium Londoner, the kind of man who has seen and done everything; his bitterness reflects a lack of purpose, not repression.

Jay is played by Mark Rylance whom I first saw as Hamlet in a Royal Shakespeare Production on American tour. His Hamlet was truly melancholic and he wore pajamas like an invalid. In performances in England he reportedly mooned Polonius; (this is a man who is easy with nudity). He is also a superb actor and now the artistic director of the Globe Theater, built on London's South Bank as a replica of the original venue for Shakespeare's plays. Recently, I saw Rylance there, as the lead in Shakespeare's seldom-performed Cymbeline. An elegant and gracious stage presence, he has formidable talent and an enchanting voice. He rarely makes films, but he was convinced by Chereau's project and put his reputation and his naked body on the line.

His character, Jay, is something of a control freak and becomes furious when the club management, without consulting him, hires a gay Frenchman as a barkeeper, despite his ignorance about the work. These two characters inevitably suggest Kureishi and Chereau. In a subplot Jay will eventually come to accept and befriend the gay Frenchman who seems unusually perceptive about people's problems. If this is not Chereau's commentary on his collaboration with Kureishi, then the subplot will seem gratuitous.

Jay, once a struggling musician trying to make it in a band, has now settled for less. He is on speaking terms with his former wife and seems to love his two sons, but he is obviously a narcissist preoccupied with himself and with sex. Chereau makes this point inescapable in a scene when Jay spends time at his ex-wife's home looking after the kids. After bathing the boys and being a good parent, he unexpectedly goes to his ex-wife's bureau and fondles her underwear. Selecting a pair, he takes it to the bathroom and masturbates while sniffing it. Chereau's cinematography in this scene is cautious and far from explicit, still there is no doubt what Jay is doing and no question about the point, particularly when one of Jay's young sons barges into the bathroom and almost catches his father in the act. Isolating and narcissistic sex is erupting into everyday family life, threatening the bastion of sentimental connectedness.

All the children in the film are angels whose innocent faith in their parents is threatened by the darkness and obscenity of sexuality. Claire's only son is one of those threatened angels. He worships his mother, who is married to a crude, obese, but seemingly benign taxi driver (Timothy Spall). Claire has decided that sex has passed out of her life, but she wants to preserve the security of her marriage and the illusions of domesticity. Apparently, she has run into Jay at his bar and experienced an unexpected spark; she gambles that he will make her catch fire again and he does. Claire does not want intimacy of the mind, only intimacy of the body. The first thirty-five minutes demonstrate what Claire wants and the rest of the film shows us how it ruins her life. Jay, ever the control freak, follows her across London to learn her identity and discovers that she is a so-so actress who is starring in a production of Tennessee William's Glass Menagerie performed in a theater in the basement of a pub. Unbeknownst to Claire, Jay meets her husband and son. The boy attends all of his mother's performances and starry eyed with love, tells Jay that his mother gets better every night. We have seen the sexual realities of Claire's life; now Chereau gives us the adoring son, the doting supportive husband, and the aspiring actress/mother, all connected in a façade of sentimental family life. We know Jay has the power to destroy that façade, and when the anonymity is lost and the affair ends, he continues to stalk Claire's family, hinting about the affair to her husband and son, driven on by his mysterious rage.

Timothy Spall, who plays Claire's husband, the taxi driver, is a talented actor with surprising range. He played a benevolent photographer in Mike Leigh's Secret and Lies, the Mikado in Topsy Turvy, and here he is a menacing bully under a surface of bonhommie. He will explode in an unforgettable scene of rage against his wife, an eruption of shattering hatred. Chereau filmed this scene with Claire sitting in the back seat of her husband's cab as he vilifies her. Not a blow is struck, but this is unmitigated domestic violence. Kerry Fox's extraordinary performance as Claire earned her best actress at the Berlin Film Festival. Claire's loss is clear, but to underline Jay's predicament Chereau gives him a one-night stand, this time with an attractive young woman who babbles away during the sexual act sending Jay out the door with a new sense of the loneliness of the narcissist.

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No Frenchman of Chereau's age and education could title his film Intimacy without thinking of Sartre. Sartre wondered if human intimacy was even possible and Chereau explores that idea through sex in a way that Sartre might relish. Is sex the ultimate instance of human intimacy or is that idea itself just bad faith sentimentality?

Chereau answers that question with thirty-five minutes of desperate sex between people who are strangers to each other: people who cling to "the reef of sollipsism"—to use Sartre's telling phrase—as their aphrodisiac. It is a sad and paradoxical commentary on the human condition. The dream of intimacy is to be fully known and accepted by the other. If that is what we wish for, then Chereau's film is our nightmare. Intimacy is a rare achievement, a film of ideas that intrigue and disquiet us.