When we deal with strangers, we accept the façade they offer. Only with longer acquaintance do we see through the lies to encounter the truth beneath. For the stranger we see in the mirror, however, sometimes a lie is more revealing.
In The Business of Strangers, which aired last night on the Independent Film Channel (IFC), the revelatory lies involve Julie Styron, a brittle single woman of power, so recently promoted to CEO of her company that it “hasn’t sunk in yet.” Brilliantly portrayed by Stockard Channing, Julie at first is convinced that she is going to be fired when the board goes into a secret meeting while she is away on a business trip.
Terrified that she has been betrayed by the company she has made the center and sole purpose of her life, she contacts a weaselly head-hunter, Nick Harris (played by Frederick Weller). Julie begs Harris to assure her that he isn’t looking for her replacement; Harris oozes unbelievable insincerity as he promises he isn’t—and we see Channing’s brilliance in the way Julie accepts what she is certain is a lie without believing it.
Julie’s assigned tech-assistant, Paula (in another wonderful casting decision, played by Julia Stiles), is fired when she shows up late to the presentation which Julie has, cooly, given anyway. Once Julie learns about her promotion, however, she apologizes to Paula, and offers to pay for her hotel room. And now the business of these strangers really begins.
Stuck in layover-mode together, the two women begin to explore each other’s lives. Beginning with the superficial (“Where did you go to school?”), they swap lies, defend mental territory, and easily drop into quasi-best-friend behavior. Julie drinks far more than such a guarded woman would in the presence of a rival. Paula is exposed as a mental-manipulator par excellance. In their bathing suits in an elevator otherwise full of men, she leads the older woman into a teasingly sexual conversation involving a “black strap-on.” Introduced to the oily Harris in the hotel bar, Paula tells Julie privately that he had raped her best friend years ago at college—then calmly invites Harris into Julie’s suite for drinks.
From there, the film decends into a tensely-drawn exploration of power, control, and the truths that lies let slip. We see the steel under Julie Styron’s brittle exterior; we learn the chaos that underlies Paula’s outward calm. The story twists and turns, providing glimpses of each woman’s past. And Harris is, in the end, only the palette on which these two women depict their own desires and regrets. The brief tenure of such art (and the rejection of the self-revelation involved) is made clear in the movie’s penultimate scene.
Even with the sinuous twists that came before, the final surprise of the story left me saying, “Hey! What happened?” The haunting image of Julie Styron in her CEO’s office, in the last few frames of the film, simply underscored the question mark.
Fasten your seat belts for this one, guys. It’s a trip with a lot of unexpected course changes—but definitely one worth taking.