Dir. Patrice Leconte. France, 2003. 104 mins.

This brilliantly written, superbly acted, witty two-hander, directed with clockwork precision, finds director Patrice Leconte in top form, doing what he does best - engineering encounters between two opposite characters and watching them squirm. A sentimental thriller, to use his own definition, providing a heady mixture of sexual innuendo and sharp psychological observations that never take themselves too seriously, Leconte's latest effort gives Bonnaire and Luchini their best roles in a long time.

Pitting two opposites against each other - a mysterious woman desperate to unload her marital problems on someone who will listen, and a financial adviser whom she mistakenly takes for the shrink next door - is the kind of premise that Leconte has always excelled at, whatever the context (Monsieur Hire, also with Bonnaire, The Girl On The Bridge, The Man On The Train) and here again he rarely, if at all, makes a wrong step. While it is too early for predictions, this should be one of the main contenders for Berlin's top awards, and could generate brisk business for StudioCanal, not only in France, where it looks like a certain winner, but in the international market as well.

Anna (Bonnaire), a woman badly in need of emotional assistance, walks one door too far along a dark corridor and instead of stepping into the offices of a psychiatrist (Duchaussoy) whose help she seeks, she enters the rooms of tax counsellor William Faber (Luchini). Before she realises her mistake, she is already sitting in front of him, pouring out her heart and unveiling intimate secrets of her marriage. He, for his part, looks at her dumbfounded, not daring to correct her false impression and tell her she is talking to the wrong person.

When she comes in for her next session, he still hasn't made up his mind how to react, but has at least sought professional help from the psychiatrist next door and from his estranged wife (Brochet). Both suggest he should tell the truth, an opinion doubtless shared by the audience as it wonders how long Leconte can keep the deceit going.

By their next encounter, Anna knows who Faber is and the rules of the game have changed - but it still continues by tacit and common accord. The script is always alert, whenever the obvious seems to lurk behind a scene, to comes up with more of this type of deft twists to keep the audience on its toes, all the way to an ending that may be too drawn out for some but still culminates in a splendid shot which does justice to the entire film.

Shot in sequence and almost entirely on a soundstage and beautifully lit by Eduardo Serra, Intimate Stranger' main asset is its casting, which should come as no surprise from someone with the reputation of an actor's director. Bonnaire's intense, passionate, fiery personality, to which she adds here touches of mystery, perversity and unexpected humour, faces the prim, repressed, righteous middle class mentality of the traditional Luchini persona, a typical bourgeois hiding behind masks of smart talk to hide his constant and countless anxieties.

To both actors' credit, they go far beyond their familiar stereotypes. If Bonnaire has done likewise in the past, Luchini, whose entertaining performances tend too often towards the ridiculously pathetic, has rarely dared explore the vulnerability of a character to such an extent, coming up with moving results.

Supported by excellent, experienced performers such as Michel Duchaussoy, Anne Brochet and Helene Surgere, and by Leconte's impeccable sense of pace, the picture turns out into one of those rare enjoyable instances where ultimately, critics and audience are equally satisfied. And that should include all film fiends who will no doubt be pleased to find a double tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, first in the images and soundtrack of the opening scene, and later in a Rear Window sequence.

Prod cos: Les Films Alain Sarde, France 3 Cinema, Zoulou Films, Assise Productions
Int'l sales:
Fr dist:
Mars Distribution
Alain Sarde
Jerome Tonnerre, Patrice Leconte
Eduardo Serra
Joelle Hache
Prod des:
Ivan Moussion
Music: Pascal Exteve
Main cast:
Sandrine Bonnaire, Fabrice Luchini, Michel Duchaussoy, Anne Brochet, Gilbert Melki, Laurent Gamelon, Helene Surgere, Urbain Cancelier, Isabelle Petit-Jacques