Nathalie is a 2003 film by Anne Fontaine (Dry Cleaning, My Father and I), starring Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart and Gérard Depardieu. It is a sophisticated attempt to look at the ways people betray each other, based on the murky dynamics of a long term marriage, but I would recommend it only to dedicated fans of the director or stars. Much more successful in my opinion is La Séparation, a 1994 film by Christian Vincent. Not that Nathalie is a bad film exactly, but its flaws get in the way.
For one, the script (rewritten by Fontaine) is propelled by a relentless series of coincidences, the kind of thing that gives melodrama a bad name. It all starts when Catherine (Ardant) the fond wife of Bernard (Depardieu), a highly mobile Parisian businessman, finds his mobile phone which he has left lying around the home (that carelessness must have stuffed up his day). Like any good wife would, she goes through and reads his messages. Instead of boring business stuff, she finds a message from someone he has spent the night with who politely thanks him for the sex. Now if husband and wife had been playing mind games with one another we might guess Bernard has left his phone at home on purpose and that the message might or might not be genuine. But they are shown as a long term couple, with their sex life taking a lag, whom are genuinely fond of one another. So its one of those just happened scenarios: phone just happened to be lying around, wife just happened to read the messages, one just happened to be about the husband’s infidelity. Catherine is distraught; she drives home from work, stops to think things over, and just happens to find herself parked outside a bar/brothel with a flashy neon sign, where she sees a prostitute say goodbye to a client. She enters, is approached by a prostitute called Marlène (Béart) whom she hires to seduce her husband, under the name of Nathalie. We might imagine all kinds of reasons why, but the film doesn’t tell us.
This series of events I call plot devices, unlikely events which are cursorily said to have taken place so that the situation the author is really interested in can be set up. Some will be able to view so far and say, “Ah, the French, so impulsive…”. Me, I’m wondering why nobody has left me a message on my phone thanking me for the sex. And I’m damn sure I’ll take it with me, in case they do (more useful if you have the thing with you anyway). And are brothels really so up market as all that in France? I got annoyed at what I saw as careless scriptwriting.
Another bother was the acting. I know that Depardieu, Béart and Ardant are good actors, but here they were monotonous. Ardant, betrayed by her husband as she supposes, never tries to find out why. Instead she spends most of the film with a look of suffering on her face. It’s well done; you know what she’s feeling. Only, it would be a relief if she would get angry, sarcastic, bitter, depressed, self pitying, try to win Bernard back by looking seductive – after an hour of watching her suffer I found myself getting impatient with her. Depardieu plays a self depreciatory (!) man clumsily fond of his wife and pitifully anxious about her. He spends the film that way, and only the fact that we don’t see much of him makes him less monotonous than the other actors. Béart has a role with some development, as the bi-sexual hooker who falls for Catherine, strings her along by talking dirty about what she and Bernard get up to, and gets dumped in the end. She gets to show what’s going on between her and Catherine while talking about herself and Bernard, which is interesting.
I found myself unsure what the film was focusing on as I watched. Apparently about the marriage of Catherine and Bernard, but is it really about the relationship between Marlène/Nathalie and Catherine? Or was the director/screenwriter trying to give equal billing to her three major stars? There was some rough editing towards the end of the film, with scenes involving Béart which were not long enough to be establishing, the kind of shots that left me wondering, now what was that supposed to be about? I imagined a film about an unfulfilled housewife who turns to a lesbian love affair which had been sanitised by removing the scenes of two women making love and tacking on a conventional ending. The ending came out of nowhere and seemed to have little to do with the body of the film.
Watch the film if delving into relationship politics is your cup of tea. Maybe you can review it and resolve some of my doubts.
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