Talk about your character studies! Here's Anna, in her mid-30s but looking world-weary, stuck in a bad marriage, with no one to talk to about it. And there's William, a decade or so older, totally set in his neatnick ways, toiling at the tax law business that his father started and that he took over. They meet under odd circumstances. She's taken a big step and is headed for her first psychoanalysis appointment. But she knocks on the wrong door: William's, which is down the hall from the psychoanalyst. Coincidences lead to no names being exchanged, her thinking that he's the doctor -- there is a couch in the office -- him thinking that she's a new client.
I want to discuss "a personal problem," she tells him, then proceeds to do just that. When he realizes what's going on, after she's broken into tears with her coat still on, he's too fascinated to tell her who he is ... or isn't.
And so it goes, with "patient" and "doctor" getting into a fairly earnest relationship, with her spilling her guts, and with him staring wide-eyed, listening more than talking. (Isn't that what a good therapist is supposed to do?) Yet even when the truth comes out, they both decide, without much thought, to continue what they've been doing, possibly heading into dangerous emotional territory.
Though the film takes on a strong dramatic subject, the script manages intermittently to put on a light face. There's a side story about a therapy patient who's terrified of elevators, and there are peeks at an absurd TV soap opera that mirrors some of the central plot. Comic relief is provided by Helene Surgere (recently seen selling lingerie in Le Divorce) as William's secretary, who doesn't cotton to his new client, but only shows her disapproval through some withering stares.
And there are terrific performances by Sandrine Bonnaire as Anna and Fabrice Luchini as William, both relaxed, revealing and oh-so-human in their parts. She is a total wreck at the beginning, pulling on cigarettes, desperate to get her story out. He, looking a bit like Teller (of Penn and Teller), is someone whose safe little world has been invaded and is helpless to do anything but let it happen. Both of them go through some changes, remaining believable, even though the story does eventually stretch too far by introducing people who might have come off better just being talked about.
But the character of Jeanne (the luminous Anne Brochet) is not one of them. She plays William's ex-girlfriend, who is still close enough to him that he's able to ask for and get some advice about what's been going on in his office with Anna. The film would have benefited if she were in it more.
Before long, it's hard to figure out if this is going to be more a study of William or of Anna. Suffice it to say that the story's tides do some shifting, as do their circumstances. Is she getting better? Is he falling apart? Will they ever realize the dashed dreams that they've confessed to each other?
On the way to revealing that, director Patrice Leconte fills the film with jittery point of view camera angles from the characters and a spare string score by Pascal Esteve that's both comforting and unnerving, often at the same time.
The ending is one that's left a little up in the air. But for such a dramatic subject, and because it's a French film, so many of which are filled with despair, it's far more upbeat than you would expect.