No Raincoats Required

'Intimacy' ranks among the best of recent European art films concerned with illicit affairs and graphic sexuality.

In 1998, audiences worldwide were shocked by The Idiots, a brilliant film that included actual hardcore sex scenes. In 1999, audiences around the globe were scandalized by Romance, a sort of dopey film that included actual hardcore sex scenes. In 2000, jaded audiences from everywhere on earth pretended to be outraged by Baise-Moi, an exploitive film that included actual hardcore sex scenes.

In 2001, weary audiences in our global village got a glimpse of Intimacy, a reasonably decent film that, shockingly, or something like "shockingly" only without the sense of being shocked, surprised, stunned or taken unawares, featured actual hardcore sex. Not a lot of it, mind you, just enough for it to qualify as a modern, European film. Having completed its run on planet Earth, Intimacy now makes its Tucson bow.

The film opens with a gritty, hand-held shot of Jay (Mark Rylance) sleeping in his filthy London apartment. He gets up to answer the doorbell, finding Claire (Kerry Fox) outside. "Was this agreed?" he asks. "No...," she answers, and comes inside.

They make equally vague small talk for a few minutes before tearing each other's clothes off as quickly as possible and getting down to business. Claire leaves immediately after, and Jay goes off to his job as a bartender.

From here, the story mostly follows Jay as he tries to figure out who Claire is. Not even knowing her name, he meets her each Wednesday for the same sexual ritual: little talk, rapid action and her equally prompt departure. Claire's absence from all but the sex scenes is unsatisfying, which is probably the intent, as that's how Jay experiences it as well.

Since Claire doesn't do much with her clothes on in the first two thirds of the film, that section focuses on Jay. Director Patrice Chereau goes to great lengths to establish the hollowness of Jay's existence, and is mostly successful in doing so through visual means, using Jay's largely still-packed apartment and difficult encounters with co-workers to show what's missing from his life.

However, even when dialogue is used to fill in Jay's back story the film avoids the nightly-news style of most cinematic exposition by having Jay spill his guts to Andy, a man who may have an unsuspecting role in Jay's affair with Claire.

These scenes are the most successful, tense and disturbing parts of Intimacy, in part because Andy is played by Timothy Spall, who was recently seen here in the U.S. in Vanilla Sky and Rock Star, but is better known in England as a veteran character actor and TV star.

Spall plays Andy as an affable guy who can follow a broad range of emotions without ever becoming excessive. In the course of a conversation he'll be amused, concerned, slightly angry and deeply interested, which forms a nice contrast to Jay and Claire, who are always either silent or enraged or that thing that's like enraged, only more fun.

Claire actually gets to show a broader range of emotions later in the film when she finally becomes the focus of the story. This comes as a relief after the hour and 20 minutes of Andy's unpleasant, squalid life in his dismal apartment with his drug-addicted friends and purposeless existence. Claire, unfortunately, is not a much more interesting character, which is why she, also, finds meaning only in her meaningless sexual encounters.

Intimacy works in part by combining the overly emotional drama that is generally taken for the European art film with something like a mystery story. While I found the faux-Bergman sections occasionally trying, the questions surrounding Claire's identity kept the movie compelling. It was occasionally uncomfortable to watch, but I was eager to see where it was going.

The uncomfortable aspect is played up in the cinematography, which doesn't aim at "pretty." Rather, it's reminiscent of Coppola's masterpiece The Conversation, with washed-out colors and a rainy, dirty city as it's backdrop. It's almost entirely shot on handheld camera, but it avoids the NYPD Blue self-parody style of hand-held, using the shake and jitter carefully to accentuate the narrowness and dizzying senselessness of the characters' lives.

In spite of how well all of Intimacy works towards it goal of presenting a character study, there's something a bit unsatisfying about it all. Though, on the other hand, as far as movies wherein someone actual places some part of someone else's body inside of his or her own body go, Intimacy is no doubt among the best. Of course, most such movies star Ron Jeremy or someone of equal acting talent, so Intimacy has a real edge, in that it features some excellent performances, creative camerawork, and a complete lack of synthesized funk music.

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