THE TAX LAWYER AS THERAPIST:
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
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
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
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).
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
abysmal quality of law and accounting practices in the area of
tax shelters in the last few years could well strengthen this
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