Hide the children and speed-dial the Eagle Forum phone tree: Patrice ChÃ©reau’s Intimacy includes a scene in which a woman performs oral sex on a man. There’s no digital trickery involved—it’s a real penis, a real mouth and two really, really sad characters fumbling desperately through anonymous sex for a connection they may not even realize they need.
Intimacy has garnered plenty of media attention and raised eyebrows for its graphic sexuality, including plenty of thrusting and grinding in addition to the aforementioned oral ministrations. There’s little chance that anyone but the most hopeless zealot, however, could possibly see it as porn. In fact, the film’s ugly couplings are enough to put you off the act altogether. The utilitarian sex portrayed in Intimacy holds all the eroticism of a day of really intensive housecleaning.
It’s one of the sad realities of non-porn cinematic sexuality that if you’re going to push the envelope, you’d better not suggest that sex can actually be pleasant and mutually satisfying—witness Fat Girl as just another recent example. Strong, potentially fascinating character studies anchor Intimacy, but ChÃ©reau casts such an oppressive pall over the proceedings that the insightful drama begins turning into anti-nookie cautionary melodrama.
The film opens in the London flat of Jay (Mark Rylance), a recently divorced-with-children bartender. He has begun a weekly, near-wordless fling with a woman (Kerry Fox) whose name he doesn’t even know, but with whom he grows more obsessed with each passing encounter. One afternoon he decides to follow her, eventually discovering that her name is Claire, that she’s married with a young son, and that she dabbles in acting. But putting a name to the face doesn’t help Jay. In fact, it drives him to a taunting relationship with Claire’s husband Andy (Timothy Spall), an amiable cabby who hangs out in the bar above the theater where Claire performs.
When its characters are mysteries still being uncovered, Intimacy casts an insinuating spell. ChÃ©reau offers brief glimpses into Jay’s pre-divorce family life, and into his interactions with a gay co-worker (Philippe Calvario) and his sadsack best friend (Alastair Galbraith). Rylance turns Jay into a portrait in self-loathing, his eventual fascination with his mysterious new partner a desperate quest to find something more meaningful. ChÃ©reau also creates one small but wonderful moment when Claire, not realizing that she is being followed, spots a disoriented Jay on the street and begins surreptitiously following him. For much of its first half, Intimacy gives that disorienting search for understanding a real emotional pull.
Slowly and steadily, though, the gloom grows heavier. ChÃ©reau makes the tactical blunder of letting us into Claire’s personal life as well, turning the story of one pathetic soul into something considerably less compelling with the addition of more pathos. The confrontations grow more strident and more literal—between Jay and Andy, between Jay and Claire, between Andy and Claire. Mournful, restrained character study gives way to showy histrionics and enough miserable humanity to fill an Oscar-nominated documentary.
There’s nothing inherently wrong, of course, with a story that shows people using sex for all the wrong reasons—heaven knows it happens far too often, and there are bound to be some interesting ways to explore that fact. The depressing thing about a film like Intimacy isn’t its willingness to expose the dark side of human sexual longing, but its subtle suggestion that exposing the dark side is the only way to turn human sexual longing into art. ChÃ©reau goes too far over the top in his efforts to show how unhappy his characters are and how loveless their sex is. While trying to make sexual frankness palatable, he starts turning the people involved into caricatures of emotional desolation.
Intimacy offers plenty to admire, particularly the performance by the always-remarkable Spall (Secrets & Lies) as the cuckolded Andy. It’s noteworthy, though, that no one gets more out of their nakedly honest moments than Spall, despite the fact that Spall himself never gets naked. Those writhing bodies lose their ability to engage us when they start spitting out bitter recriminations. In Intimacy, what we hear coming out of the characters’ mouths is never as real as what we see going into them.