The Big Picture: Intimacy (18)

Adultery: up close and impersonal
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The Independent Culture

Director Patrice Chereau Starring Mark Rylance Kerry Fox

95 mins

Patrice Chéreau is good on flesh. He understands its hues, its texture, its hideous vulnerability. His 1994 film La Reine Margot conveyed the sanguinary horrors of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre by focusing intently on the colour of corpses, a lurid pallor his cinematographer Philippe Rousselot had apparently lifted straight from medieval religious painting. Chéreau's last film, Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, caught the black-eyed, funereal pastiness of a party of mourners on a train, where the bluish light casts a shadow of mortality on everyone's skin.

The first thing we see in Intimacy, his latest, is a tangle of flesh that seems to be two bodies entwined on the floor; but no, it resolves itself into the single body of a man twisted in a posture of sleep, like one of Schiele's agonised studies of the human figure. The camera surveys his half-clothed form, and asks us to consider the pitiful yet defiant attitude of his pale limbs, the flesh and muscle untrimmed by exercise. It announces: he is alone, after all.

We will become quite familiar with this body over the next couple of hours. It belongs to a thirtysomething man named Jay (Mark Rylance), divorced father of two, head barman, malcontent and possibly a bit of a jerk. Every Wednesday in the afternoon a thirtysomething woman named Claire (Kerry Fox) comes to his flat in south-east London, and within minutes they grapple each other to the floor, tear off their clothes and go at it.

The candour of these sex scenes has already made Intimacy notorious – the press screening was as packed as I've ever seen, and I couldn't help noticing that at least half of the "critics" there were not in attendance at the earlier showing of Dr Dolittle 2. Did they get what they came for, I wonder?

The frisson of "actual" sex on screen will not startle anyone who has seen a porn movie, but there are marked differences here. Rylance and Fox are fairly well-known actors, for one thing, and at the level of mere gossip it stirs up all sorts of speculation – did the actors' partners know, for instance, exactly the nature of the "intimacy" the film required? When she fellates him, was it precisely orchestrated or did she just go for it, as it were, willy-nilly? And so, pruriently, on.

This relates to the larger difficulty of context. In pornography, the real and the make-believe rub along quite happily: the ridiculous fakery of the plots is decoration to the bare documenting of the sex – those bodies actually did what you see them doing. In mainstream drama, however, the documentary element is disruptive, hauling the viewer outside the boundaries of fiction. A tacit contract between audience and actor has been breached. A kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh, but a bobbing erection is a problem. The time may come when we won't even blink at the sight of penetration on screen, but that time isn't now.

The irony of it all is that the sex scenes between Rylance and Fox have a fleshy realism and an urgency which the rest of the movie conspicuously lacks. Chéreau, adapting from two stories by Hanif Kureishi, wants to show sex as an expression of the characters' drives – how the act can be a conversation, or a furious row, or a farewell. It's what happens outside of their intense couplings that makes Intimacy feel clogged and, at its worst, completely artificial.

Chéreau's photographer, Eric Gautier, aims for the poky bedsit "realism" that's been holding steady since This Life, a matter of sudden, twitchy camera movements and a preference for doorways and rumpled bedrooms as a backdrop to conversation. Outside the flat, the busy thoroughfares of Peckham and New Cross accentuate the workaday atmosphere and suggest the urban anonymity that both enlivens and isolates the couple's intimacy. When together Jay and Claire barely exchange a word: "I don't have the impression of being with anyone," he says of her. It's the same emotional dislocation that characterised the lovers of Last Tango in Paris nearly 30 years ago. No names, no personal disclosures, no comment.

Intimacy will have nothing like the same impact as Bertolucci's film; the whole climate was different back in 1972, and Brando was in his last phase as a great actor. "Realism with the terror of actual experience still alive on the screen," was how Pauline Kael described the achievement of that film. It's roughly what Chéreau is after here, and once or twice he gets it. A flashback shows Jay abandoning his wife and family for good, packing up his gear like a thief in the night, but before he goes he masturbates in the bathroom, then has a quiet little chat with his six-year-old son: we get the idea that these are the memories that will haunt him.

What derails the pair's secret liaison, and the film with it, is Jay's decision to break the spell of anonymity and delve into Claire's life. He starts following her, and discovers things he would perhaps rather not have known – for one thing, she's an am-dram regular in a pub theatre; for another, she is married to Andy (Timothy Spall), a loquacious cabbie with chaotic teeth and an inability to smell a rat at five paces. Jay becomes a pool-room companion to this cuckold, a promisingly nasty development on which the script dismally fails to capitalise. There just isn't enough emotional or intellectual substance to sustain the intrigue.

Nor does it help that Chéreau and Kureishi write dialogue that no human being in the world would ever utter. On the periphery we get disjointed sallies from Jay's friends, whether the drug-addled sad-sack (Alastair Galbraith) who shouts and sweats a lot, or the gay French barman (Philippe Calvario) who fancies himself as a philosopher. Even less comprehensible is Marianne Faithfull in the role of Claire's confidante, who serves up bag-lady gibberish by the square yard.

Visually, this movie offers something truthful in its portrait of erotic passion, and certain details – the reddening bloom on Kerry Fox's face, the scar bisecting Mark Rylance's eyebrow – may even outlast the more controversial images of carnality. As an account of spiritual estrangement, however, or the failure of love, or the precarious state of modern marriage, or whatever else it thinks it is, you're not missing a great deal.