The most striking aspect of Nathalie (2003) is what it isn’t: a raunchy, exploitive tale of marital discord and spousal revenge, with a sleazy hooker at its core. Nathalie is in fact a drama where no one is a stark villain, but each of the film’s three central characters – wife Catherine (Fanny Ardant), husband Bernard (Gerard Depardieu), and prostitute Marlene (Emmanuelle Beart) – are sympathetic in spite of making bad moral choices.
Each person is confronted with opportunities that affect the other. In the opening scene, Catherine hears an unsubtle message on Bernard’s cellphone that makes it clear he indulged in some serial infidelity during a business trip. Out of revenge, Catherine decides to hire a prostitute to engage in an affair with Bernard, posing as a student named ‘Nathalie.’ The girl is paid to tease and have intercourse with the married man, and immediately give a report to Catherine, after which she’s paid a fine sum in cash.
Catherine’s efforts start off as a dare, then a means to trap and confront Bernard, but the serialized plan blossoms into an experiment where Catherine eagerly hears details of her husband’s declining moral depravity. Eventually things swerve into cruel revenge, but when their marriage is poised to shatter, Catherine tries a different tactic which unearths another moral shock.
For hooker Marlene playing Nathalie, the job presents an easy income opportunity outside of the men’s club where she’s based, but as the two women develop a distant friendship out of their unusual business arrangement, Nathalie seems to look for opportunities to break away, but Catherine repeatedly returns, as though addicted by details of Bernard’s increasingly intense sexual behaviour. In private, Catherine and Bernard are married zombies, but Nathalie seems to provide a provocative alternate life that Catherine perhaps wishes was her own.
Director Anne Fontaine (Coco avant Chanel) focuses on the meetings, discussions, after-effects, verbal recaps, and reactions of the characters, as well as the ordinary private moments during each person’s daily routine. Scenes are almost impressionistically edited, but the formula works because it reduces what could’ve been ponderous, lurid scenes into glimpses of character psychologies as a simple curiosity and revenge plan turns into something neither character expected.
There are no scenes of Bernard ravishing and claiming Nathalie; the sexual escapades are described to a Catherine in a chilly manner by Nathalie. Moreover, the finale reveals the cleverness of Fontaine’s direction by her misdirecting our attention to details that fix anger towards the likely transgressor, and going along with one character’s moral stance.
Nathalie’s post-sex recaps to Catherine are graphic, but it’s a cheat Fontaine uses to balance out her camera’s slow, languid attention to the emotions the women are repressing from each other. We constantly feel them thinking, reacting, and plotting, which makes Nathalie such a fascinating little drama.
Koch Lorber’s DVD features a decent transfer of the film (in 2.35:1, not the erroneously listed 1.77:1), although the PAL to NTSC conversion has minor speed imbalances. The colours are rich and heavily saturated, and the Dolby sound mix is very broad, with Michael Nyman’s sympathetic orchestral score nicely edited between natural sounds and source music inside the men’s club, and the various restaurants where Nathalie and Catherine have their meetings.
The DVD also comes with a trailer and a making-of featurette (in French only, with no English subtitles) that follows director Fontaine during the film’s shooting in Paris. There’s little info on the film’s genesis, and the stars are shown only to detail Fontaine’s directorial style, but it’s an effective video diary showing how the film was produced with an eye away from male-oriented sleaze – an angle that could’ve easily turned the film into direct to video rubbish.
Remade in 2009 as Chloe by director Atom Egoyan.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan