Patrice Chéreau’s Intimacy may be the latest instance of the new sexual candor of the European art cinema, but there’s a sly, nostalgic feel to the enterprise. The movie begins, like Last Tango in Paris, with a pair of strangers preparing to couple in some untenanted no-man’s-land: “Was this agreed?” he asks, upon opening the door mid-afternoon to find her. “No,” she admits. “Come in,” he decides, and almost immediately the pair are scrambling out of their clothes on the floor of a grubby south London pad.
Here and for the rest of the movie, Intimacy references the Bertolucci Tango in so many ways that it comes to seem a low-rent analogue and satiric corrective. (A similar relationship exists between Antonioni’s ridiculously fashionable Blow-Up and De Palma’s purposefully degraded remake, Blow Out.) The principals in Intimacy are both middle-aged. Their sexual relations are hectic, raw, and reasonably naturalistic—this is a movie where a used condom rates a close-up. Things will be all the more graphic in the couple’s four subsequent trysts, not to mention the guy’s bathroom solo.
Intrepidly acted by Shakespearean thespian Mark Rylance and, especially, New Zealand’s Kerry Fox, Intimacy tells the story of Jay and Claire and their anonymous sexual relationship. Naked and desperate, they make a wonderful team. She’s round and ample, he’s angular and gaunt. Dressed and inarticulate, they’re altogether less attractive. (The movie follows this general pattern as well; the characters are not nearly as engaging outside of their affair.) She’s glum and a bit dowdy, he’s sour and grungy—a bartender in a trendy Soho watering hole. Like the Brando character in Last Tango, Jay has recently lost his wife—but that’s because he walked out on her and their two kids.
Intimacy, which takes the title of Hanif Kureishi’s 1999 novel and much of its premise from an earlier Kureishi story, “Nightlight,” is Chéreau’s first English-language film (as Last Tango was Bertolucci’s), and one might consider the filmmaker nearly as bold as his stars. At last winter’s Berlin Film Festival, where Intimacy won the Golden Bear and Fox was chosen best actress, the film was generally slagged by the London critics, some of whom questioned the representation of local behavioral patterns. (What really stung must have been the useless advice Jay gets from a pretentious gay French coworker.) But authentically British or not, Intimacy is squarely in the indigenous kitchen-sink style—a far cry from the absurdly chic, sentimental pseudo-worldliness of something like An Affair of Love.
The brusque expanses of flesh are meant to evoke Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud. The craft borders on the Dogmatic. The scenes are harshly lit, the camera often handheld. The soundtrack tends toward the noisy, with much shouting and incidental clamor. The editing is haphazard, the narrative sometimes obscure. We never learn how Claire and Jay met and arranged for their weekly, no-questions encounters. She seems to be the one who keeps showing up, although he’s the first to begin wondering about the rest of his partner’s life. Soon, he’s hopping on and off public buses, shadowing her around London—a game of hide-and-seek that’s no less choreographed than their sex scenes and leads Jay to a basement theater below a neighborhood pub where Claire is acting (badly) in a fringe production of The Glass Menagerie.
Like Last Tango, Intimacy is predicated on a triangle. But rather than having a recondite new-wave filmmaker in tow, Claire’s hitched to a good-naturedly talkative cab driver named Andy (Timothy Spall, adding immeasurably to the local color). Jay finds Andy in the pub, strikes up an acquaintance, and jealously proceeds to torment the unwitting cuckold with outrageously double-edged banter. These effectively unpleasant scenes are unsuccessfully balanced against those allowing Claire to wax temperamental with her acting-class confidant (played, in cockney, by Marianne Faithfull for maximum decomposing glamour).
What sort of show has our Claire contrived? Which part is she really playing? Theater (Chéreau’s original métier) supplants sex as the movie’s ruling metaphor. By the time Claire has cracked up in her night-school acting class, Intimacy itself has grown increasingly desperate. Searching for closure, the movie lurches from one unconvincing emotional confrontation to the next. Proscenium pulverized, the ending is played out in the rubble. Still, compared to the madcap histrionics of other movie affairs, Intimacy is a model of restraint. People do come and go. That’s life, isn’t it?
Intimacy experiments in rampant physicality; Richard Linklater’s innovative animated feature, Waking Life, is strictly mental. Returning to the mode of his first feature, Slacker, Linklater has designed Waking Life for as much talk as action. The narrative, such as it is, begins with a stranger (Wiley Wiggins) arriving in town and perambulating through a succession of deep-dish raps or homespun theories—aesthetic, neurological, and crazy by turns. Most concern dreams. The movie’s not-so-ultimate suggestion: It’s all in your head and la vida es sueño.
The verbiage of this annotated sleep walk, which includes an ironic discourse on André Bazin’s ontology of the photographic image and myth of total cinema, fades in and out like a badly tuned radio, but there’s no ignoring the movie’s look. Waking Life was shot and edited as an ordinary motion picture, featuring a number of prior Linklater associates (among them Wiggins, Ethan Hawke, and Julie Delpy) and then transformed, frame by frame, into computer graphics. Thanks to a program created by art director Bob Sabiston, the whole world—mainly Linklater’s hometown, Austin—becomes an updated version of the rotoscoped actress who modeled for Disney’s Snow White.
Initially, the results are fascinating. Faces are abstracted, but facial expressions are remarkably precise. Landscape is rendered as swaths of color characterized by shifting paint-by-numbers highlights. Outlines are unstable, with a woozy Soutine-like flow. The earth heaves and shudders; space bobs and weaves. After a while, however, the image begins to choke on its own impasto. The animation comes to seem turgidly literal minded. Characters may float over the city or set themselves afire on the University of Texas campus, but the movie feels earthbound; it doesn’t revel in cartoon liberation from time and space.
So, too, the earnestly whimsical riffs. As the “show” fades, the “tell” begins to grate. Less altered-states trippy than barroom garrulous, Waking Life doesn’t leave you in a dream, specifically the dream of Linklater’s previous films, so much as it traps you in an endless bull session.
Speaking of nightmares, Arthur Miller’s 1945 novel Focus—brought to the screen by photographer Neal Slavin—is an expressionist fable from the days when anti-Semitism was understood to be the defining trait of totalitarian fascism. Lawrence Newman (William H. Macy), a staid personnel officer charged with enforcing his company’s bigoted hiring practices, gets a pair of glasses, and is piqued to discover that people now take him for a Jew.
Like the gentile hero of Gentleman’s Agreement, which was published the same year as Focus (but filmed in 1947), Newman passes in reverse. As a result, he loses his job and finds himself suspiciously regarded by his prejudiced neighbor (Meat Loaf Aday), as well as unwillingly bracketed with the local newsdealer Finklestein (David Paymer), already the target of anti-Semitic harassment. To compound the irony, Newman marries the brassy Gert (Laura Dern), a dame whom he once rejected for a position because he mistook her for a Jew and who assumed that he was a Jew as well.
“Nobody makes a Jew out of me and gets away with it,” Gert snarls after the honeymooning couple are turned away by a restricted resort hotel. Her point’s well-taken. Dern and Macy give doughty performances in schematic roles, but glasses or no, these have to be two of the least Semitic-looking actors in American movies. Like the huge “American Way” billboard that’s positioned directly across from Finklestein’s newsstand or the fascist gang that tries to run them out of the neighborhood, their presence is pure Kabuki. This, of course, makes Miller’s point. “Jewishness” is not just an abstraction but a purely negative identity—except in so far as it creates a bond of oppression.
Not altogether unconscious of its anachronistic premise, Focus fine-tunes the novel’s original ending for greater optimism and universal uplift. Still, recent events have helped this period piece even more. In its flat-footed warning against guilt by association and blunt evocation of vigilante Americanism, Miller’s antique has taken on an unexpected topical relevance.