Nathalie

”When (Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart and Gérard Depardieu) can’t breathe life into a movie supposedly filled with sex, sleaze and exotic eroticism, something is wrong.” So says one reviewer on Netflix who has somehow managed to sum up this interesting yet frustrating film. Those three principals would undoubtedly be the primary draw here, and when one examines their oeuvre, the similarities are striking; Depardieu and Ardant were born just a few months from each other (Depardieu in late ’48, Ardant in early Spring of ’49) and even though Béart is 14 years younger than either, she landed her first role a year before Depardieu. So here you have these three actors whose careers have been almost entirely contemporary, three of the finest that France has ever produced, all together for a film, and I’m stunned to say that results are depressingly stale.

The film begins as a clichéd tale of infidelity. Fanny Ardant is Catherine who is married to Depardieu’s Bernard, but discovers that he is cheating when she listens to one of his cell phone messages. She confronts him, but Bernard is aloof about the whole thing, stating it only happens rarely and that those women mean nothing to him. But Catherine remains visibly shaken, and decides to visit a gentlemen’s bar that she saw her husband in. There she meets Marlène (Emmanuelle Béart) who works as a prostitute. Catherine hires her, changes her name to Nathalie, and tells her to seduce her husband and report back with all the details. Nathalie does so, but soon the two women form a bond that has nothing to do with Bernard or his infidelity.

For a so-called erotic drama, Nathalie is a surprisingly discreet film with very little nudity and even less sex. It’s obvious that co-writer and director Anne Fontaine wanted to emphasize the “drama” part rather than the erotic part. In fact, the most eroticism in the film comes from Nathalie relating her sexual encounters with Bernard to Catherine; these moments almost feel like someone reading scenes from a smut novel, and they raise the question of why these moments are only related rather than shown. In fact, Nathalie and Bernard are only shown together on screen once, and that’s only in a short scene in which she asks him for a light. As Nathalie’s stories get more and more explicit an attentive viewer can’t help but question their veracity. Once the question is raised, the film’s conclusion comes as no shock, but it neither does it come as any kind of revelation of character.

It takes its time, but Nathalie slowly reveals that it’s an attempt at a character study rather than as a plot-driven drama. Catherine’s hiring of Nathalie proves to be a subtle bit of misdirection in which we think that some kind of wicked game of sex and intrigue will unfold, but no such events ever happen. Instead, the film begins to reveal a portrait of a lonely, sex-starved middle-aged woman who has distanced herself from her husband and passion on an unconscious level. She even works as a gynecologist, which reveals the cold, detached, way in which she views sexuality. But the film’s problem is that its characters remain mysterious blank slates for too long with little lack of development. Initially, one can’t help but be confused as to why Catherine is hiring Nathalie at all, and even as we come to understand that Catherine is deriving pleasure from Nathalie’s stories, this doesn’t exactly explain why she hired her in the first place—surely she didn’t do it for that reason on a conscious level?

This lack of character development and anchoring conflict causes the film to suffer throughout its runtime. Indeed, the film doesn’t really seem to make any progress until Catherine and Nathalie becomes friends, but this happens well past the one-hour mark, and once we reach that point the film attempts to quickly move on to its finale and denouement, neither of which feels satisfactory. Up until the friendship of the women the film is plagued by a kind of unsureness, as if it’s caught in a dramaturgical identity crisis limbo. If the tactic of keeping the “what kind of film is this?” question up in the air works in the beginning, it too soon results in disinterest precisely because the film gives us no reason to care about these characters. In a way this film feels like a (more dramatic, less erotic) cousin to Brisseau’s Secret Things, which was another film that established an interesting scenario with characters who seemed interesting on the surface, but were stuck in a film that utterly failed to fulfill that potential.

If the characters themselves are exercises in underachievement, I can’t extend the same criticism to the actors. Ardant, Béart, and Depardieu all turn in performances that too good for the film they’re in. Ardant is particularly outstanding and does what she can to mold the lump-of-clay Catherine into a 3-dimensional entity, and is largely successful via a tremendous amount of nuance. Béart has been criticized for being an overrated pretty face, but I think most of her films (including Nathalie) reveal a natural magnetism she has that silently speaks of an individual of mysterious hidden depths. That persona certainly fits the character of Nathalie, who herself is an enormous mystery that we never get to solve. Depardiu has, by far, the least screen time of the trio, but he is wonderful in a muted performance of a man whom, despite his infidelities, remains sympathetic and humanistic. As with the others, he expands the scope of his character beyond what’s written on the page.

But ultimately, none of the cast or performances, even when they’re together, is able to save this mess of a film. One would be tempted to blame it on Anne Fontaine’s direction, but it seems to me the fault lies more in the writing than in the direction. The direction feels wholly confident: stylish, without ever being intrusive or ostentatious, and there’s no real examples of bad editing or framing. No, the problem is a virus that infects the film on a screenplay level. Nathalie is, if nothing else, a cautionary example that should teach young writers to define what kind of film they’re making and to establish conflicts and reveal character nuances. This is a screenplay that does almost none of the above, and the result is a film that’s like a demo tape that got released without any kind of artistic refinement.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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