Directed by the late Patrice Chereau (Queen Margot, Persecution, Gabrielle) and adapted from stories by Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette), 2001’s London-set Intimacy is a grim, downbeat tale of the human obsession with sex and both our failure and need to connect through it. The film follows Jay, a failed London musician who meets once a week with Claire – a woman he barely knows – for a series of intense sexual encounters. But when Jay actually reaches out and begins asking the usual kind of relationship questions about her, it throws their heady and casual union into stark relief. Is it possible to have continued sex without real intimacy? It’s a fraught question, and it gives this confronting film its inherent kick. Giving it an even weightier kick are the highly explicit, wholly non-titillating sex scenes that punctuate its gloomy but affecting narrative. The dialogue is unusually candid and eloquent, and the emotions effectively stoked, but these are the moments that mark the film.
It was a bold move for Mark Rylance, who up until that point was best known for his staggering work in the British theatre, as well as a few supporting roles (Prospero’s Books) and the occasional lead (Angels & Insects) on film, as well as a clutch of TV appearances. “Dear Patrice has passed away, of course, who made that film,” Rylance tells FilmInk at The Cannes Film Festival (where he’s promoting Steven Spielberg’s family film, The BFG) of Intimacy. “The intention was to make a film about the difficulty of intimate relations in an urban setting, and it was based on a couple of books. It was a pretty painful experience, the way that the film was treated, at least in England. It was painful…I felt very vulnerable. I made it because I believed in that being a real situation, and that sometimes our body and our senses can lead us to true love. It’s not just the mind or the heart that can lead you that way. The senses are generally considered inferior. There were a lot of good reasons to make it.”
The painful experience that Rylance refers to is the controversy that kicked up around the film, not just because of the explicit nature of its sex scenes, but more explicitly because of a scene in which Rylance’s co-star – gifted New Zealand actress, Kerry Fox (An Angel At My Table, Shallow Grave) – is seen actually fellating him on screen. Questions were screamed about whether the film should be classified as pornography, and the integrity of everybody involved with the film was questioned. A viewing of the film today only serves to highlight how overheated the criticisms were. “They were very beautifully written,” Kerry Fox told FilmInk of the movie’s sex scenes upon its theatrical release. “That’s essentially the plotting of their relationship, and the journey that they have until they fall in love. So we talked about that journey, and what each scene brings to their relationship, and what they reveal to each other. And we made sure that each one was different, and that we didn’t repeat anything, and we were very clear about what the intention of each scene was. Most times when you do a film, and you’re supposed to be involved in a physical relationship with another character or in love with them, the script says ‘They make passionate love.’ And you think ‘Fuck, what am I going to do?’ Because it takes quite a bit of work to do that! It’s very rare! I’m just so sick of seeing these lies about how people relate to each other physically. I’m sick of it. I find it disgusting and horrible, and just the fact that it’s so untrue. It doesn’t reveal anything about human nature and how awful and painful and difficult and wonderful it is. And how ordinary people can be beautiful in that situation and that’s how they fall in love.”
Kerry Fox, however, was always aware of the controversy that could potentially greet the film, and that Intimacy was bound to be a ground breaker. “I’m sure that was definitely part of the challenge for me,” the actress told FilmInk in 2001. “You can’t guess other people’s responses to the film. I was shocked by the reaction in Britain, particularly from people who hadn’t seen it. There was a very moralistic response, and horrible things were said, mainly by people who hadn’t seen the film. The critical response was really mixed as well. A lot of people really didn’t like it. It was criticised for not being erotic enough. All this fuss was caused around the censors, and I spoke to the censors and they had no problem passing it. It wasn’t even an issue for them. It wasn’t a difficult film for them to categorise, it was really straightforward. I was door stepped by this woman, and because I wouldn’t talk to her, she wrote this really weird article about me that my flatmate won’t let me see! And because of all this, the main thrust of the film got lost.”
The emotional core of the film, however, remains steadfast, with Fox and Rylance pushing themselves right to the edge as actors. Patrice Chereau had cast Kerry Fox first, and he knew that he wanted Rylance, whose work he’d admired in the theatre. “Mark wanted to meet me before he committed to it,” Fox explained to FilmInk. “So we went to meet him, and Patrice intentionally got there late because he wanted to see us together. You know within a matter of seconds whether you can get on with somebody or not. And Mark’s just extraordinary…I don’t know how he does it; I don’t how he manages to reveal himself so clearly and cleanly. He does so much theatre that he finds film quite a foreign medium, but he’s great. We just made sure that we just tried to talk basically. We just looked after each other basically. We didn’t do any of that method shit like staying away from each other or not talking between scenes! What’s the point of being out there alone? You’re working with someone, and you’re supposed to compliment them.”
With Mark Rylance’s ascendance in the international film industry, the terse, grittily poetic, and bleakly honest Intimacy might now be known for something more than the controversy that it generated upon its released. All of which seems so ridiculous now, particularly considering the response that the film received from Kerry Fox’s friends and family. “I was really nervous that my best friend would be critical of it, but she really loved it,” the actress told FilmInk. “My sisters have seen it, and my mother, but my father didn’t think that I wanted him to see it, so he didn’t go! I was waiting for him to say something about it! But my mother just said, ‘That’s nothing to be shocked about.’”