Talk of Love and Taxes

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A man and a woman meet on a bridge. They both intend suicide but instead fall in love. She joins his knife-throwing act.

A gangster alights in a small town, meaning, somewhat reluctantly, to rob its bank. He takes a room at a reclusive schoolteacher's house. The recluse, naturally, becomes more gung-ho about the heist than does the professional.

A troubled woman makes an initial appointment with a psychiatrist, opens the wrong office door and ends up spilling her troubles to ... an accountant.

These are the premises of three recent movies, Girl on the Bridge, Man on the Train and Intimate Strangers, by the French director Patrice Leconte, and one feels obliged to advise Hollywood to beat a path to his door. The man invents better mousetraps than anyone in the American industry — entertaining and deadly little contraptions that are also slyly muted melodramas about the way apparent opposites do not so much attract as join forces to muddle through life's inevitable messiness.

Take the latest of his films, Intimate Strangers. When we first meet Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire), she is all earth tones and hesitations. William (Fabrice Luchini), her interlocutor, is all buttoned up — suit, tie, suspiciously neat desk. Anna tells a story of a marriage that has become sexless and hostile. We learn that William has inherited his business (and his home office) from his father; he has never lived outside these confines. We know from dozens of other movies that each of these characters is destined to bloom. What we can't guess is how the narrative is going to encourage that flowering.

We don't, for instance, count on the suddenness with which obsession takes over William's life. He's soon trotting down the hall to consult with the shrink Anna meant to visit. We don't count on the fact that she sees through William but keeps returning to talk to him anyway — she's that erratic.

And so is the movie. Minor characters keep turning up — Anna's menacing husband, her body-builder lover, William's divinely cranky secretary — to keep it hopping. Anna's story that she accidentally-on-purpose ran over her spouse in their car seems preposterous. But one day he hobbles in on his cane and starts jealously beating on William. The husband may have been ill used, but he's still desperately in love.

Intimate Strangers is not a dry little intellectual etude for two hands. Its scope is not much larger than a prissy office, but it insists that life, in all its goofiness and unpredictability, can happen anywhere. Better still, it proposes that you can make an extraordinarily satisfying comedy without writing a joke. Subtly played and elegantly directed, this is an Adults Only movie in the best sense of the term.