In France, a country where cinema is regarded, at least by the intellectual left, as being more representative of the Gallic spirit than any religion, director Anne Fontaine must be guilty of some kind of national treason. How else could one excuse her terrible achievement in 'Nathalie': to have taken three of the most experienced and well-known French thespians alive and combined them in a limp, ineffectual drama which fails to satisfy on any level. Virtually a compendium of French cinematic cliches, from the oddly static mise-en-scene, plentiful smoking and impassive discussions to the tired, menage-a-trois plot, ‘Nathalie’ is a big disappointment, especially considering the fine films we’ve had from France so far this year: (‘The Devils’, ‘Bon Voyage’ etc)
Impeccably bourgeois wife and mother Catherine (Ardant) seems to have it all; a rewarding job, a charming son and a handsome husband, as well as a waistline many women half her age would kill for. However, she's tastefully devastated to learn that, after 25 years of marriage, Bernard is having affairs with other women. She confronts him but he's dismissive, claiming the assignations mean nothing. Distraught, Catherine wanders into a bar late at night and accidentally meets Marlene, a beautiful, disaffected prostitute. Over drinks she formulates a plan; Marlene will assume the name Nathalie and 'accidentally' meet with Bernard, then report back to her, telling him what he said and did. This Marlene duly does, detailing in a bored tone how she approached Bernard in a bar, asked him for a light and then later had sex with him in a nearby hotel.
At first appalled at being brought face to face with the casualness of her husband's betrayal, Catherine quickly becomes fascinated by this oddly objective perspective on her husband's behaviour. She pays Marlene to have sex with Bernard, then meet her afterwards and describe the encounter. What did they do? How did they do it? What did Bernard like? Catherine starts to use this extra-marital espionage in order to get back at her philandering husband, for instance wearing a hand cream that she knows Bernard will find attractive, then spurning his advances. Empowered by the experience, Catherine decides to take things a step further and take a lover herself. However, Marlene/Nathalie has a surprise in store for her that will change the nature of both their relationship and her marriage forever.
As a concept 'Nathalie' admittedly sounds as if it's sprung from one of those Shannon Tweed-y 'erotic thrillers' crowding the stores of your local video store. Had it been given this blatantly sexual treatment, the film would at least have offered some entertainment value, however base. Fontaine, however, chooses the far more Gallic route of sitting around, smoking and talking about sex in bored voices. Even this could be amusing, if done with the right degree of self-aware irony. 'Nathalie', however, is played dead straight throughout, with the only laughs coming unintentionally from Depardieu's quintessentially French shrugs and pouts. The script - at least as subtitled - is poorly written and unengaging, the characters are one-dimensional and unbelievable and the emotional tone so unchanging throughout the film that the various decisions the characters make seem entirely arbitrary. Divorce? Suicide? Lunch? It’s all ze same , n’est ce pas ?
Which leaves one with the question: what exactly was Fontaine trying to achieve in ‘Nathalie’; an erotic thriller? Those hoping for a dose of Beart in the all together will be only partly satisfied and the most potentially sexy scenes - where Marlene describes her encounters with Bernard - are delivered with a flatness of tone that renders them clinical and devoid of sensuality As a thriller, the film lacks the important element of thrills. The plot arc is flattened until it's nearly horizontal, and the extremely tame 'twist' at the film's conclusion will hardly have you reaching for the smelling salts.
The film's strong point is the redoubtable Fanny Ardant. Like Hepburn in 'The Lion in Winter' Ardant has reached that stage as a screen actor where she seems incapable of an ungraceful movement. Born to play courtesans and queens, she fits effortlessly into the role of the scorned, middle-class wife in 'Nathalie', wafting through the film in a selection of immaculate tailored skirts and expensive stilettos.
Ardant comes from that splendid tradition of French actresses (Arletty, Jeanne Moreau, Isabelle Huppert et al ) whose style of acting means they remain largely impassive throughout whatever dramatic events their characters are living through. Stylish and insouciant, the impressive cheekbones of this proud army have, over the decades, ploughed like ice-breakers through countless frigid French dramas. Their main avenues of expression are the eyes (think of Arletty in 'Les Enfants du Paradis', eyes gleaming with tears as she meets Baptiste's son) and the inevitably husky, Gitane-roughened voice (Moreau in ‘Nikita’, opening up the rich world of female sensuality to Anne Parillaud with her calm monotone). In 'Nathalie' Ardant gives a masterclass in ocular expression, glaring balefully at her husband or gazing with an odd mixture of distaste, envy and affection at Marlene, while her voice remains calmly detached throughout. What little force the film has comes from her quiet concentration.
By contrast, Depardieu's performance feels underpowered and directionless, giving us little idea of who Bernard really is. It's hard to tell whether Depardieu is badly-directed, bored or just tired, but this is the least interesting performance I've ever seen from this superb, usually entertaining actor. Beart, for her part, is an opaque presence, playing a character who - but for her face and figure - seems to be entirely unremarkable, a part-time prostitute with no particular goal in life. None of the actors, however, deserve to be blamed for the film's failure to entertain or involve. That burden has to be laid at Fontaine's door.
Ardant and Depardieu have formed excellent onscreen sparring partners before, most memorably in the excellent 'Le Colonel Chabert', but here they have little to do. Even Michael Nyman's fine score is underused, leaving large gaps of awkward silence while characters shuffle around the tastefully decorated rooms, causing chunks of the movie to resemble nothing so much as a play where several actors in succession have forgetten their lines. No, ‘Nathalie’ is, unfortunately, a whore best avoided.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 12:16:58