The Business of Strangers

Plot Synopsis: Julie, an executive, promoted to C.E.O on an out-of-town jaunt, celebrates her victory with an entry-level employee, Paula, who she fired earlier in the day in a moment of panic. The two women share a night of boozing, and dancing that turns a little nasty when a lonely corporate headhunter, Nick, joins them for some fun.

In recent reviews published on the web, The Business of Strangers (2001) is being translated as In the Company of Men‘s (Labute, 1997) feminine counterpart. The description is accurate, if overly general and superficial, for drawing attention to the pristine anonymity of business-like environments (whether that be an office, an airport or hotel) and the shtick of corporate verbal-intercourse. In terms of thematics and the provocation of ideas, though, this film has more in common, with those other films that have ‘Stranger/s’ in their titles; Strangers on a Train (Hitchcock, 1951), Stranger than Paradise (Jarmusch, 1984) and The Comfort of Strangers (Schrader, 1990). It shares their phrenological focus, or, the idea that we can ‘read’ people, even strangers, by the expression on their faces.

The slightly haggard Julie, played by Stockard Channing seems, succinctly, to represent our Dorian Gray-based assumptions about the toll of corporate life. We tend to associate the power and money of executive level positions with moral vice in what can only be described as a neo-Victorian attitude. Tough executives are tacitly understood to be well kempt on the outside, whilst inwardly crumbling, decaying, turning to sludge. Conveniently we forget that these same traits might also contribute to personal, if not moral, fibre.

‘Strangeness’ forms the premise for this film; the main characters are strangers to each other, even those who have business relationships. Julie (Channing) and Nick (Frederick Weller), for example, are acquainted with each other through the arena of corporate head-hunting. Yet, as we discover (and then un-discover), they have no claim to mutual knowledge at all. (Here it may be observed that a line is drawn between the public and private realms; knowing someone in the business sense does not equal knowing them.) We, too, are strangers to the scene, knowing precisely no more or less about each character than they know about each other and this is the film’s device; to create a familiar filmic scenario – a brief interlude with an unknown person that ‘changes’ the natural course of a life – and to subvert even that subversion of identification. We are privy to a double-subversion, then, because in our role as onlooker we are rewarded for our lack of personal investment in the relationship we have observed with the denial of a total explanation or resolution. However, the two women involved in the exchange of ‘secrets’, Julie and Paula (Julia Stiles) seem satisfied and knowing. After all, it is they who invest the situation with their own boundaries regarding the acceptable levels of trust and betrayal.

If we take a pop-Derridean approach to the concept of ‘strange’, we must look at what it means to be ‘not-strange’. One way of looking at this can be found within the basic tenets of Russian Formalism: to “make strange” or “defamiliarise” the object of representation is to ensure that the reader/viewer sees what was once familiar as now something extraordinary. This is how poetry works, manipulating everyday words and phrases to form different structural patterns and associations. And film, through the construction of juxtaposed shots, creating montage sequences is supposed to do this too. So, this is a long hand explanation for the equation ‘if defamiliarise is to make strange, then to be not-strange is to be familiar’. Strangeness is unfamiliarity.

‘The stranger’ has been commented upon in areas of globalisation theory. Using Georg Simmel’s theory of ‘the stranger’, Roland Robertson elaborates on this mysterious ‘Other’ who threatens the boundaries of local convention. The stranger is a part of our cultural mythology, presenting a threat to the community through his/her potential to express an objective viewpoint. (That is, to partake in community events without the ties of loyalty, or loyalty divided.) The stranger is not predisposed towards affirming or ratifying the behaviour of ‘the community’ as normal. To the stranger’s eye, the community is as unfamiliar as he or she might seem to the community. All the community has is ‘we’, the power of numbers, to the stranger’s ‘I’, a singular and unsupported notion.

The theme of strangeness vs. voyeurism is thus reiterated throughout The Business of Strangers; the ‘we’ of the audience invests little as the community of film watchers, yet is in a position to judge the ‘appropriateness’ of the two characters for our community by the simple fact of ratio; thousands of viewers watch a lonely, two filmic entities. For the risk they take, though, in ‘getting to know’ each other, dropping the façade of public respectability, Julie and Paula are rewarded each by the singular pleasure of interactive knowledge, of what it is to know directly, a certainty denied to their audience. As such, we are neither reassuredly normal in our response to the discourse surrounding Julie and Paula, and neither are they, or their situation, strange. We are forced to assess the possibility of our own strangeness en masse, our lack of community, since the film is devoid of consequence in the classical narrative sense.

The beauty of The Business of Strangers lies mostly within its tarantella with convention. There are a few times when one feels bound to groan in anticipation at a foregrounded outcome. The following scene is an example of this: (note that this is a paraphrase of the conversation, not a verbatim transcription!)

The two women, Paula and Julie, have finished revelling in their dastardly deeds and are in danger of being discovered by a security guard. The younger, an apparently headstrong and savvy Paula threatens to sing, and alert the security guard to their presence if the older Julie does not kiss her. (From here, the scene would appear to deteriorate into a C-grade psychobabble battle of the mind-readers.)

Paula: I can see it all now, the little girl from the wrong side of the tracks, made good as the C.E.O of a major corporation, the tough-assed woman so lonely that her best friend is her secretary…
Julie: [Silence. Taken aback but barely shocked] Sing! Sing!
Paula: [doesn’t sing, turns away petulant]
Julie: See! Here we go. The prissy little private-school princess, ivy-league university, doesn’t know what she wants to do yet. Ends up married and living in the suburbs with Mr. Corporate Right. I see these women every day and they end up as my assistants!
Paula: [huffs and looks like she’s about to start crying]

You see, when this dialogue began, I thought it was the beginning of the end – the thumbnail sketch psychiatric caricature profile that hits a nerve and uncoils the personal wrapping that adorns us all (according to Spielbergites), revealing the vulnerable, beating heart of the movie. We are spared this tearful raison d’etre. It is a beautiful thing.

It is a beautiful thing as well to see two splendid actors pitting will against will to find the sophistication that takes us beyond the clichéd banality dictating that all we want to do is break down and confess. This is a movie about strength, wit and the denial of ‘root causes’, which have become a nymphatic titillation for psychoanalytic film makers and theorists.

There are marked similarities between the physical depiction of women in this film and their depiction in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (Aldrich, 1962) channeled through the concerns of ’70s and ’80s video/ed performance art. I say this because, despite their obvious photogenic qualities, the two women are focused upon as interesting examples of the human face – how it registers (or not) feelings and motive. This, rather than the soft-porn or ‘flattery’ emphasis, depicting the female face as the grand-narrative representation of Beauty.

At the film’s beginning a glorious 2 minute-long shot happens where the obviously aging Julie talks on her mobile phone, in the back of a limousine, to her best friend Deb, about her imminent career demise. The bright grey, stark light accentuates the harshness of Julie’s heavily made-up face. Her hand and wrist (in full view since the phone is at her ear) confronts us with the static image of a lamp-tanned, sagging skinned and slightly puffy post-menopausal hand for the duration. There’s not a hint of a tremor, even now as she discusses the destruction of her life’s purpose as a high-ranking executive within the company. Her face, highly animated by curious, darting eyes is what reminds us of the horrifically dragged appearance of ‘Baby Jane’. Instead of representing the onset of total madness, however, it signals her journey and the reason for her ultimate success; she never gives anything away. In fact, when she is surprised by the president of the company offering her his position, she maintains the same demeanour.

It has already been said of Channing that at 58, she is in demand as an actor and could well be in the prime of her career. The Business of Strangers tells us why.


Robertson, Roland, Globalisation, UK: Sage Publications, 1992

Hawkes, T, Structuralism and Semiotics, UK: Methuen, 1977

Web sources: starting with Andrew Urban review for www.telstra.com

About The Author

Anna Daly writes short fiction and contributes regularly to Australasian art and film journals.

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