Desperate obsessions

Comparisons to Last Tango are just the beginning.

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“All his life, it seems, he’s been seeking sex,” Hanif Kureishi writes in his short story, “Nightlight.” “He isn’t certain why, but he must have gathered that it was an important thing to want. And now that he has it, it doesn’t seem sufficient. But what does that matter? As long as there is desire there is a pulse; you are alive; to want is to reach beyond yourself, into the world, finger by finger.”

French director Patrice Chéreau (La Reine Margot), making his English-language debut, has taken that paragraph to heart, and the script he co-wrote with Anne-Louise Trividic based on several of Kureishi’s short stories is a classic example of sexual obsession among the walking wounded.

Jay and Claire meet on Wednesday afternoons in his spartan London flat for anonymous fucks. They barely speak, don’t know each other’s names or life stories, and neither looks much happier afterward. This is kitchen-sink British realism spiced with French carnal frankness, and the sex scenes have none of Hollywood’s careful choreography or blissful afterglow. The sex Jay (Mark Rylance, Angels and Insects) and Claire (Kerry Fox, An Angel at My Table) engage in here is raw, explicit (including graphic fellatio), and driven by need more than romantic desire. There’s a clumsy, groping desperation to their couplings, which seem to provide relief as well as release.

Chéreau shines a glaring light on these intimate moments in a way that’s meant to shock (as opposed to titillate) audiences and bring us into the very private world of Jay and Claire, who have become sexual co-conspirators anxious to keep the outside world at bay. But while Intimacy is bound to be compared with Last Tango In Paris for the way it expands the boundaries of onscreen sexual expression, that’s only the starting point in this sad tale of middle-aged rut.

It’s slowly revealed (Chéreau is prone to disorienting jumps in the narrative) that Jay was once a musician who took steady bartending work when he became a father. Now he’s divorced, sees his two sons sporadically and sleepwalks through his marginal existence, coming alive only for the Wednesday trysts and to bully new hires — like the philosophical Frenchman incongruously named Ian (Philippe Calvario) — at the trendy watering hole where he’s the bar manager. He’s selfish, brutish and lost, yet curious enough about his mysterious partner to begin following her.

What he sees when he beholds Claire onstage at a small community theater portraying the emotionally fragile Laura in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie is hardly the sexual adventurer he envisions. Married to Andy (Timothy Spall), a gregarious taxi driver who indulges her acting ambitions, and with a worshipful young son who religiously attends her performances, Claire may be restless and unsatisfied, but she’s also unwilling to relinquish the life she’s so carefully crafted for herself.

Now that Jay and Claire exist for each other outside of their sexual cocoon, the question becomes whether their intimacy can survive scrutiny.

While author (The Buddha Of Suburbia), playwright (Outskirts) and screenwriter (My Beautiful Laundrette) Kureishi’s imprint on Intimacy is sizable, director Chéreau has eschewed much of his customary sexual politics. He’s stripped the story to its essential ennui, and shot the film in a naturalistic style that’s documentarylike in its piercing insights of closed-off people.

What Chéreau has effectively captured is a particular brand of malaise created when people have been bitterly disappointed by both art and love.

Yet, as Intimacy shows, they can’t help but return there for solace when a life sans art or love suddenly seems terrifyingly pointless.

Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.

Visit the official Intimacy Web site at www.intimacythemovie.com.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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