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Michael Asimow



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Lawyers must be good listeners and they are rewarded as much for their good judgment as for their professional knowledge. Lawyers, after all, are professional problem solvers.

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By Michael Asimow

Anna (the ravishing Sandrine Bonnaire) is a troubled woman who makes an appointment with a psychotherapist for a late afternoon visit. By mistake she wanders into the office of William (Fabrice Luchini), a tax lawyer down the hall from the therapist. Anna begins telling William about her marital problems and he is too fascinated and embarrassed to stop her. Even after Anna discovers that she's confiding in a tax lawyer rather than a therapist, she continues their consultations. Thus begins Patrice Leconte's delicious movie Intimate Strangers, an unclassifiable film that falls somewhere between the mystery, film noir, and romantic comedy genres.

This review won't dwell on the superbly etched minor characters, such as Dr. Monnier, the real therapist who looks a tad like Freud and never overlooks the bottom line; Mme. Mulon, William's bossy secretary; Marc, Anna's equally troubled husband; and Jeanne, William's ex-girlfriend. Looking just at Anna and William, why in the world would a woman who has no tax problems confide her most intimate secrets to a tax lawyer? Granted, William's a lot cheaper than Dr. Monnier (actually he's free), but on the other hand he isn't exactly qualified to give marital advice.

The situation is comic, of course, but it is not absurd. In fact, lawyers act as therapists much of the time. When engaged in legal work, they often have to act therapeutically, for example by cooling down clients who are emotionally over-involved in disputes or by getting them to face reality in considering a settlement proposal or a plea bargain.

Lawyers also frequently furnish non-legal advice about personal matters, business or investments, or estate planning. They are often called upon to listen sympathetically to their client's non-legal troubles, sometimes to their entire life stories. Lawyers must be good listeners and they are rewarded as much for their good judgment as for their professional knowledge. Lawyers, after all, are professional problem solvers. Sometimes they're paid just to be a friend-a sympathetic yet objective, resourceful, and not overbearing friend.(1) William observes that he's consulted about birth, marriage, death, and divorce all the time.

Lawyers and therapists have the same obligation to protect the confidentiality of the client's secrets. In fact, as Dr. Monnier points out, therapists and tax lawyers have a lot in common-their clients must decide what to declare and what to hide. So it's not so surprising that Anna would find that she is deriving benefit from her consultations with William, who in fact turns out to be a pretty good therapist.

But why would William want to listen to all this? He's a busy professional, surely, and we see several scenes in which he has to blow off paying clients in order to meet with Anna. Well, it's titillating, of course, and soon he feels an intense sexual attraction to Anna-although this review won't disclose whether their relationship is ever consummated. But it's also true that William is really a dork. His relationship with Anna-which is confined to her talking and him listening-is far and away the most satisfying thing in his life.

It's been said of tax lawyers that they are good with numbers but don't have enough personality to become accountants. And so Leconte must have made William a tax lawyer because it was very dorkiest profession he could think of. Certainly, tax lawyers and accountants in the movies are usually terminal nerds. This was true of Robert Tracey (Jack Lemmon) in Phffft! (1954); Robert is a nerdy tax lawyer who gets a date with his future wife by offering to fill out her tax return. Certainly it's true of accountant Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder) in The Producers (1968). Bloom falls somewhat short in the personality department though he's pretty strong in the creativity department. Government tax inspector Ryoko Itakura (Nobuko Miyamoto) in A Taxing Woman (1987) and A Taxing Woman Returns (1988) was relentless and seemed to have no life other than catching tax cheats. Tax lawyer Stuart Markowitz (Michael Tucker) on L. A. Law (1986-94) was nerdy but loveable. Stuart took over as the firm's chief tax lawyer after his predecessor was found dead with his face in the CCH Tax Reporter when the staff came in on Monday morning.(2)

Of course there's one major exception to the rule that tax specialists in pop culture are dorks. The tax lawyers in The Firm (1993) weren't dorky. They were either murderous crooks fronting for the mob (such as Gene Hackman and Hal Holbrook) or greedy, over-achieving young associates (Tom Cruise). Indeed the film (and Grisham's book) might suggest to some that tax law and organized crime are the same thing.(3) But William, in Intimate Strangers, is as dorky as they come. He definitely won't inspire law students with the longing to specialize in tax law.

William is pathetically repressed. He inherited his tax practice from his father.(4) He continues to work, and to live, in the same gloomy flat that his father owned. He even inherited his father's busybody secretary. Jeanne, his ex-girlfriend, dumped him for a musclebound moron. He is pathologically unable to make the first move with a woman. There is nothing going on in his life except his tax practice, nothing at all. Thus the mysterious Anna is a gift from heaven. Who knows if she is telling the truth about her husband? Who cares? For William, his "therapy" sessions with Anna make life worth living.

Well, speaking as a former accountant and a former tax lawyer, and more recently a tax law professor, I really loved this movie. OK, I wouldn't want to emulate William's personality or his rather dreary law practice, but I admired his ability to serve as a loyal friend, confidant, and adviser to a beautiful and troubled woman. It isn't Revenge of the Nerds (1984) exactly, since William doesn't get revenge against anybody, but he wins some important personal victories as the story spools out. The film is a satisfying tribute to the simple pleasures of dorkdom.

1. See Charles Fried, The Lawyer as Friend: The Moral Foundations of the Lawyer-Client Relation, 85 Yale L. J. 1060 (1976).
2. And there have been other rather dysfunctional tax specialists, including characters in Ghostbusters II and Ordinary People. See Erik M. Jensen, The Heroic Nature of Tax Lawyers, 140 U. Pa. L. Rev. 367, 369 (1991), which hails The Firm as the great breakthrough for the image of tax lawyers.
3. The abysmal quality of law and accounting practices in the area of tax shelters in the last few years could well strengthen this analogy.
4. Perhaps this was intended as a nod to the father-son law firm on The Defenders (1961-64), the greatest of all TV lawyer shows.

Posted: September 9, 2004

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