My strongest memory of Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy (2001) was of its frank, lengthy sex scenes, sequences which caused considerable controversy at the time of the film’s appearance in 2001. (Had it been released at the end rather than the beginning of our thoroughly pornified decade, with its parade of filmic erections, penetrations and ejaculations (plus - thank you, Mr. von Trier - one significant auto-clitoredectomy) it seems likely that the movie would have created less of a hullabaloo.) I decided to revisit Intimacy nine years on, after liking Chéreau’s Son Frére (2003) so much, and I still think that the sex scenes are the film’s most impressive feature - those, and the strong roles that the movie offers for three fine actors: Kerry Fox, the too-rarely-seen-on-screen Mark Rylance and the very-often-seen (but always welcome) Timothy Spall, who, over the years, has become as sensitive and nuanced a performer as you can find. (Though I still treasure the memory of his broadly-caricatured Aubrey in Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet .)
Adapted from Hanif Kureishi's novel, Intimacy charts the spiralling, Last Tango-ish affair between Rylance’s Jay, a divorced father-of-two, and Fox’s Claire, who meet weekly for sex in Jay’s grotty South London flat. Spall plays Claire’s husband, with whom Jay forms an uneasy sort of alliance when, anxious to learn more about this woman who “comes round, fucks, then leaves,” he tracks her to a pub theatre where she’s playing Laura in The Glass Menagerie.
Intimacy excels in mood and atmosphere: it’s visually arresting, with Chéreau vibrantly capturing a sensuous-and-seedy London and creating sex scenes that are as expressive as they are explicit, and which succeed in conveying the shifting contours of the central relationship. In terms of narrative structure and dialogue, the film is much less effective: elements are simply too vague (we never even find out how Jay and Claire first met, for example) and, as in other Chéreau pictures, there are jarring moments and strange inconsistencies throughout. (Marianne Faithfull gives a very odd performance as a cock-er-nee acting student and friend of Claire’s.) Kureishi's dialogue can be hamfisted at the best of times, and this adaptation does it no favours at all. Since the movie never finds a verbal idiom to match its visual eloquence what you take away from it are scattered images: the opening shots (scored to Tindersticks) of Jay sleeping; dynamic scenes on the London streets; and the naked bodies, frantically seeking out the titular state. Troubling and flawed as it is, Intimacy deserves to be seen for all of these moments, and for the committed, intense performances of its leads.