Directed by Patrice Chereau, starring Mark Rylance, Kerry Fox, Timothy Spall, Alastair Galbraith, Phillipe Calvario and Marianne Faithfull.

This is the story of a separated man and a married woman who meet every Wednesday afternoon for sex. They don't talk, just hump each other's brains out - well, no, that's not strictly true. Jay, played by Mark Rylance, comes on hot 'n' heavy every time, but proceeds to finish up his business at an alarming rate, leaving Claire (Kerry Fox) to forlornly roll to one side and collect up her hastily discarded clothes. This cannot be described as good sex and either she's a masochistic connoisseur of such or she has the unique female ability to come in thirty seconds flat.

Jay is clearly a very unhappy puppy, who we learn has left the family home and is currently in an emotional limbo, going through the motions of his bar manager job. Claire, we discover, is an amateur actress who performs in her local pub theatre and runs a drama group. Her husband Andy, played by Mike Leigh regular Timothy Spall, hangs around the theatre bar to check on what the playgoers have to say to their companions on the way out. This seems to be the activity of an inadequate man who jealously keeps tabs on his attractive spouse.

The acting by all three is excellent, the scenario is mundanely plausible, but the characters are coldly dislikeable. Despite this, the addictive nature of this purely physical relationship makes the film itself strangely compelling. It is a cogent illustration of the great human dilemma – that sex and rational behaviour seldom occupy the same sentence, let alone the same headspace. The ability to separate sex and love, long considered a male talent, is fluently charted in this story of two people who come together for the same thing and that is all that can ever bind them.

There are three notable peripheral characters to prove that we're not operating completely in a vacuum. There's Jay's friend, the dissolute Victor (Alastair Galbraith), a broken-wings type drink/drug addict whom Jay has picked up along the way and who seems overly dependent on his friend; Ian, the gay French barman (Phillipe Calvario), who Jay hires and then proceeds to position as his sole confidante; and Betty, an eccentric elderly student of Claire's played by living legend Marianne Faithfull, who acts as Claire’s equivalent confidante. All three of these characters have no function independent of their connection to the adulterous couple and seem utterly contrived, even though Faithfull and Galbraith are capable actors. The gay barman really has nothing to do, so he very quickly irritates.

Much has been made of the fact that the filmmakers and main actors have claimed that the sex was for real. Now I am rather cynical about claims like this and frequently tend to dismiss such as the worst kind of crass marketing. We have, for instance, heard this many times before in relation to mainstream movies like 'Don’t Look Now' and the Nicholson/Lange remake of 'The Postman Always Knocks Twice'. However, I must admit upon seeing the film that it is very explicit - if only for breaking the last filmic taboo and showing an erect penis - and that if they were faking, poor old Mark certainly would've experienced a great deal of, how shall I say, member-chafing! So I hope for his sake they were doing it for real, after all it's much more comfortable and clearly shows the admirable dedication that some actors have to their craft!

Patrice Chereau directs here from a novel and short story from Hanif Kureishi and he certainly captures London in all its dinginess with the wonderful detachment of a foreigner looking into another culture. Chereau excelled with the sumptuously dirty costume drama 'La Reine Margot' in 1994 and scored again with 'Those who Love me can take the Train' in 1998. This is his first feature in English and he has wisely opted for a small-scale canvas upon which to ponder a peculiarly English affair.

Nick McGinley

'Intimacy' is at the Irish Film Centre, Dublin until 30 August 2001.