Nathalie… (2003)

First published by Movie Gazette

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The complicated dynamics of the relationship between husband, wife and lover have been explored time and time again by French cinema, but director Anne Fontaine manages to find a new feminist variation on this theme in Nathalie…, which she co-wrote with Jacques Fieschi.

Catherine (Fanny Ardant) and Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) are a middle-aged middle-class couple who have stopped having sex long ago and seem to be moving apart. Catherine discovers that Bernard has had yet another fling on a business trip, but instead of taking revenge or splitting with him straight away, she becomes obsessed with finding out what it is that Bernard gets from these other women that he cannot get from her. So she goes to a hostess bar and hires beautiful young escort Marlène (Emmanuelle Béart) to pretend to be a student named Nathalie and to seduce Bernard into a relationship, the blow-by-blow details of which she will then divulge to Catherine. Except that as Marlène’s reports grow increasingly pornographic and her relationship to Bernard seems ever more serious, it becomes clear that Marlène has a better idea exactly whose fantasies she is servicing and whose needs she is fulfilling than Catherine herself.

Anne Fontaine’s tale of desire and sexual surrogacy concerns a woman set adrift from herself who seeks to rediscover her identity in another – and although Catherine hires Marlène to have sex with her husband, by a neat inversion it is really Catherine herself who seems to be engaged in illicit adultery: paying Marlène money, sharing clandestine phone calls with her, visiting her in a sex club and a hotel room, and even installing her in an apartment, before finally discarding her for her own legitimate spouse. Bernard, in the meantime, is largely marginalised – a surprisingly bold move, given that he is played by such a cinematic heavyweight as Depardieu – putting sharper focus on Nathalie… as a story very much between, and about, women.

The film’s concern with the tangled relationships of women to their bodies is even reflected in the professional lives of the two female leads – Catherine is a gynaecologist, while Marlène is a cosmetician by day and a prostitute by night. In Nathalie…, Ardant and Béart put in performances that are far more subtle than their earlier on-screen collaboration in 8 Women, here as women who are themselves flexible masqueraders playing an assortment of roles, and subverters of the classic divide between mother and whore.

There is a scene in Nathalie… where Bernard gives Catherine his assessment of a play that he has just seen. “Longish at the end,” he says “but good” – and this is also true of the film. Its biggest problem is that the ‘twist’ which comes at its end has in fact been quite obvious from within the first ten minutes – but this can be forgiven in a film that is hardly meant to be a conventional thriller so much as an investigation into the identity, often masked, of the female psyche.

Anton Bitel