Sunday, August 22, 2004

Intimate Strangers and Open Water

By Elise Nakhnikian

Practically everyone agrees that there aren’t enough good film scripts these days. But what does that mean, exactly? I’ve been thinking about that since watching Open Water and Intimate Strangers last weekend.

Open Water should have been a stone cold summer chiller. Loosely based on the story of two people who were left behind by their dive boat off Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and never found, it takes us into the ocean with our couple as they to see what will get them first: the bloodthirsty sharks circling them or the rescue boats that they’re slowly losing faith in. Yet Intimate Strangers, whose story is far less dramatic, is a more interesting movie.

Intimate Strangers is a variation on a theme seen in countless other movies: A repressed man and an unhappy, perhaps unreliable beauty free one another by falling in love. But inventive touches and deft handling orchestrated by director Patrice LeConte keep things unpredictable and intriguing.

Anna (Sandrine Bonnaire) and William (Fabrice Luchini) meet when Anna knocks on the wrong door on her first visit to a psychoanalyst, ending up with the tax analyst next door. William, the tax analyst, listens sympathetically to Anna’s marital woes, taking her for a new client in need of help with a divorce. When he realizes her mistake, he’s too rattled and she’s too rushed to get things straight. The confusion continues for a session or two, and by the time it gets sorted out Anna and William have come to depend on their talks.

They keep meeting, and Anna gains confidence as she sees the effect she is having on William, growing more light-hearted and seductive. William lightens up a bit too, even doing an ecstatic little shimmy one night to Wilson Pickett’s “In the Midnight Hour.” Bonnaire and Luchini make us care about these two and believe in their growing attraction, but there’s more to the movie than the self-effacing charisma of its stars.

A few well-drawn minor characters, including William’s meddlesome secretary, his sad-eyed ex-lover, and the psychoanalyst down the hall, who William consults about how to “treat” Anna, keep popping up, taking on new shadings each time. His interactions with these other people tell us a lot about William – and provide some wry comic relief.

In contrast, Open Water focuses relentlessly on Susan (Blanchard Ryan) and Daniel (Daniel Travis). The only other character who gets more than a few seconds’ screen time is a boorish passenger aboard their dive boat who’s featured in an overlong sequence illustrating the confusion that allowed Susan and Daniel to be left behind.

Ironically, that sequence is more dramatic than most of what happens after Susan and Daniel are abandoned at sea. Except for the occasional outburst, the two seem remarkably nonplussed, alternately bickering and nurturing each other just as they did at home or in their hotel. As they argue over whether to swim for a distant boat, their lack of affect borders on bizarre: It’s the bland leading the bland.

The married couple the movie was based on disappeared sometime after their dive boat departed. (Nobody knows when, since it took a couple of days for anyone to realize they were missing and mount a search, by which time they were nowhere to be found). That lack of knowledge gave director/writer Chris Kentis a blank slate. He chose to fill it by creating banal characters, making them react to the crisis largely as if it weren’t happening, and shooting in aggressively lackluster digital video. His purpose may have been to make us feel like we’re watching a home movie as it unspools (he likes to call the movie “Blair Witch meets Jaws,”), but he succeeded only in draining most of the thrill from an inherently suspenseful subject.

The most interesting thing about Open Water is the fact that the sharks you see circling the actors were all real – and really in the water with Ryan and Travis – but you can’t tell that by watching the movie. With computer-generated special effects as good as they are these days, using real sharks has the feel of a publicity stunt – or a cost-saving measure, since the movie was made for less than half a million.

If Open Water is Blair Witch meets Jaws, then Intimate Strangers is Vertigo meets Sex, Lies and Videotape, with its copious sex talk, fascinating female lead, and besotted leading man. I thought of Vertigo during an unexplained scene in a train station where Anna faints, and during the frequent close-ups of just part of her face or body, which deliver her to us in shards that echo the disjointed stories she tells William about her life.

Open Water favors low-angle shots too, but the reason is more prosaic: surface-level shots of the ocean help us assume Susan and Daniel’s vantage point – which leaves us struggling to see clearly, our line of sight broken up by waves so small they’d be almost invisible if viewed from above.

In movies as in every other kind of storytelling, what ultimately matters most is not what story you choose to tell but how you tell it. And that’s why Intimate Strangers teases while Open Water tanks.

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