Middle-aged gynaecologist Catherine (Fanny Ardant) discovers that her husband, Bernard (Gérard Depardieu), is cheating on her. She confronts him about it, but he is dismissive. A chance meeting with a prostitute/lap-dancer named Marlène (Emmanuelle Béart) gives Catherine an idea, and for reasons that are best known to her she orders Marlène to call herself "Nathalie" and sleep with Bernard. "Nathalie" obliges, and describes her encounters with Bernard in intimate detail to Catherine who, it would seem, gains immense satisfaction from hearing about her husband's latest transgressions. Quite where this is meant to be headed is never explained, but the concept of a woman paying a prostitute to sleep with her husband is an interesting one with the potential to offer some real insight into what makes the relationship tick. Again and again "Nathalie" sleeps with Bernard, and Catherine dutifully dishes out a handsome amount of cash for her trouble. The thing is that, as much as she hates to admit it, Catherine really does enjoy hearing about what Bernard and Nathalie get up to, and gradually she begins to build up a relationship with Nathalie that goes somewhat beyond friendship.
If this all sounds deliciously filthy and exciting to you, think again. Nathalie is about as erotic as toenail clippings. With its immaculately composed frames, languid pace and complete lack of self-depreciation, it frequently feels as if it is taking the viewer for granted. Every line is delivered in such a matter-of-fact manner, and the dialogue is so completely devoid of humour or self-awareness, that one gets the impression that director/co-writer Anne Fontaine is expecting her audience to simply find the subject matter fascinating for its own sake. The problem is that, for a film about the most interesting of pastimes - sex - Nathalie has remarkably little to say. Its characters are vapid and one-note, the pace infuriatingly slow, and there is criminally little sex for a film that is supposedly intent on investigating its role in relationships. When Nathalie is detailing her latest escapade with Bernard to Catherine, we wonder why we are supposed to care. Indeed, perhaps we aren't supposed to. Perhaps we are supposed to be as indifferent about it as the characters themselves, but this only causes me to question the point of even making the film in the first place. Fontaine's approach of show rather than tell does it no favours, as the act of telling adds nothing that simply showing the process would not have achieved, and at least then the film could potentially have succeeded in being a steamy erotic thriller. To be fair, once the film has reached its end, it does become clear why none of the events have been shown, but the plot twist that justifies the lack of on-screen antics is so tired and predictable that it certainly doesn't make up for the ennuie of the preceeding 90 minutes.
This sort of tale works best when it offers us a window into the inner workings of its characters' minds, but sadly all Nathalie is able to tell us is that the relationships of middle-aged couples can become distant. Everything is so completely devoid of sentiment that it quickly becomes a genuine chore to watch, with each scene seeming to come and go without any real reason. By the end I was literally counting down the minutes, waiting for the end credits to role. The film even manages to take my favourite Sarah McLachlan song, the haunting I Love You, and strip it of all emotion.
With three of France's best actors occupying the main roles, it's actually something of a feat in itself that the film succeeds in being so lifeless. Fanny Ardant smokes and smiles disdainfully and looks elegant a lot, and Gérard Depardieu, well, is Gérard Depardieu, but unfortunately he is treated as little more than a doorstop throughout the film. Along with her younger counterpart Ludivine Sagnier, Emmanuelle Béart is one of the most interesting French contemporary female actors, combining ravishing sexiness with genuine acting chops. At the age of 39 she still has a body that many women half her age would kill for, but the script is so cold and clinical that she has little chance to perform and is robbed of any genuine sex appeal... although to be fair, the make-up artist should take his share of the blame for smearing one of the most attractive faces in cinema with an excessive amount of paint - then again, I suppose it is in character. Either way, this is certainly a far cry from her appearance in La Belle Noiseuse. To her credit she manages to be convincing as the bored prostitute, but is given infuriatingly little to do despite occupying the titular role. It's a shame, because her co-stars Ardant and Depardieu prove to be even less interesting, meaning that for most of the film the only thing keeping me engaged was Béart's physical appearance. That might be enough for some people, but when you consider that, for a film that is all about sex, the only real depictions of the act are spoken, this really is a let-down.
Nathalie is presented anamorphically in its original aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Image quality is excellent, with plenty of detail, a reasonable reproduction of the film grain, and pleasingly few compression problems despite being stored on a single-layer disc. Some of the colours look a little washed out, and a number of scenes tend to look a bit more yellow than normal, but this was probably an intentional stylistic choice on Anne Fontaine's part. However, I am removing a whole 2 points from the overall image quality rating due to the fact that very LARGE, very UGLY subtitles are BURNED IN throughout the whole film. These subtitles are part of the image itself rather than being player-generated, so there is no way for even the craftiest of crackers to disable them. Look, I have nothing against forced subtitles when they are included for small snippets of dialogue, as in Kill Bill and The Lord of the Rings, and indeed in such cases I would prefer them to be burned-in so as to maintain the design of the subtitles in the original theatrical prints, as their design is often integral to the film's feel. The subtitles in Nathalie are for the whole film, and their "design", if I can even call it that, is hardly vital for maintaining a specific mood or atmosphere.
The only audio track included is a straightforward Dolby Digital 2.0 mix preserving the original French dialogue. I'm somewhat surprised that a 5.1 track was not included (one is present on the French and Australian releases), but for this type of film, stereo is acceptable. There are no obvious problems with the sound, but it fails to distinguish itself in any way. This is simply a solid 2-channel mix: nothing more, nothing less.
Extras are limited to a theatrical trailer, presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with burned-in English subtitles. The trailer actually gives the impression that the film being advertised is an engaging erotic thriller, when in fact the end result turns out to be neither particular engaging, nor particularly erotic, nor particularly thrilling.
The Australian release fares somewhat better than the version we get on this blighted isle, featuring the same burned-in subtitles but including an image gallery and a half-hour documentary (in unsubtitled French), whereas the French release is even better, with a subtitle-free transfer, the documentary and an audio commentary by Anne Fontaine and Fanny Ardant. However, its lack of English subtitles will probably make it a non-starter for most of this site's readers.
I assure you it was anything but.
Nathalie, while showing promise and featuring three extremely talented performers as its leads, proves to be a sluggish and infuriatingly tedious affair, livened up only by some nice photography and the ever-sumptuous Emmanuelle Béart. Recommended only for those with the patience of a saint, the film is presented on a DVD that looks to have been the result of extreme laziness.
Oh, and the British/French culture clash continues with this film, which is rated 15 on this side of the pond but is rated as acceptable for all ages in France. Since our moustachioed neighbours have their heads screwed on properly with regard to sex, I am going to suggest that sane individuals defer to their rating scheme for this particular film and ignore the BBFC's draconian '15'.
Nathalie is released in the UK on 31st January 2005.