Nathalie Granger

 

The story of Nathalie Granger is minimal as to nearly be non-existent; Lucia Bosé is Isabelle (whose name must only have been uttered once, since I even had to look on IMDb to find out), while Jeanne Moreau plays the “Other Woman” (whose name, I guess, was never given). The two live in a quaint, French chateau with two young girls, Nathalie (Valerie Mascolo) and Laurence (Nathalie Bourgeois). The women are concerned with Nathali, who appears to be depressed and disconnected from school, other children, and life in general. Both seem to agree that piano lessons are the best thing for her, but Nathalie might not want to cooperate. Otherwise, the two women live a quiet, bored, banal life in near silence, and the visitation of a lively washing machine salesman (a young Gérard Depardieu) proves to be the highlight of their day.

If this does indeed sound like a story, the fact is that the women’s focus on Nathalie and even the film’s focus on Nathalie might account for perhaps ten minutes (likely less) of screen time. The majority of the screen time is filled with what could be described as tableau vivants, or scenes of characters stilled as if they were in a photograph or painting. There are scenes of characters smoking, sitting, walking, riding in a boat; and it’s telling that these silent elements dominate in one’s memory when the film is over. Bosé and Moreau play characters that could only be described as statuesque vampires: characters who suck the life out of everything on screen by their deathly blank stares instead of any pointed fangs. One wonders why a director would get one of France’s finest actresses (in Morreau) and then make such little use of her.

Perhaps the single most memorable scene involves the “salesman” Depardieu visiting the women in an attempt to sell them a washing machine. Depardieu’s salesman stands in contrast to the women; vibrant, garrulous, and with the right mix of awkwardness and gregariousness. But the scene quickly turns absurd as his sales pitches are met with blank stares by the two women. Eventually they begin repeating that he’s no salesman; he swears he is and produces a license to prove it, but they swear he isn’t, and this seems to unsettle him as he promises to come back. It’s a simple scene to describe, but the scene itself must drag on for over ten minutes, and as it wears on it becomes indicative of the entire film itself: there’s something utterly absurd and hilarious in its minimalistic theatricality. One wonders whether that scene, and, indeed, the whole film is a serious attempt at visual/narrative artistry or a parody of such things.

That scene also connects to the mordant, perhaps symbolic ending in which Depardieu breaks down, revealing that he never wanted to be a salesman. He wanders through their house, eventually leaving to go who-knows-where, and we see, through the window, a dog walk by and literally balk in front of the house as if he was terrified of some monster living there. They say that children and animals are unusually sensitive to evil, and I concur with the dog that there is, indeed, something terribly malevolent underpinning this entire film and its characters. One scene has the “disturbed” Nathalie continually trying to put her pet cat in a baby stroller, and eventually giving up and crashing the stroller: the scene itself made me recall the infamous cat torturing scene in Béla Tarr’s Sátántangó, which was another film that seemed perpetually haunted, even in the most ostensibly innocuous moments.

The film certainly isn’t short on interesting quirks. One of those quirks being the frequent radio broadcasts that are relating the news story of a brutal slaughter committed by two underage boys, and the police search to try and find them. At the outset, one thinks that this will prove an important link to Nathalie’s character, who we’re constantly told is disturbed and who even has daydreams of killing everyone. But much like everything else in the film, this proves to be a red herring. In fact, when Nathalie’s on screen she hardly seems abnormal at all, and when we finally do get to hear her play the piano we realize that she does have genuine talent. It turns out that she seems much less disturbed than her parents… I mean, I guess the two main women are supposed to be her parents (again, the film is frequently vague about these things).

Behind the camera we have writer/directore Marguerite Duras, whose name I’ve seemingly heard countless times in passing, perhaps seeing her name on credits or in lists of obscure films and directors. Nathalie Granger is the first film I’ve seen from her, and after looking her up, I realized that I probably most strongly heard her name referenced in regard to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad which she wrote. For those who’ve seen that film, it should give you a decent, general idea of Marguerite’s style of writing: spare, minimal, elliptical, without a great deal of plot, conflict, or overly developed characters. Her theory was that if you stripped all of that away you would get an audience to help fill in the gaps. What she might have missed, though, is the fact that you need to give enough to provoke people to put the work in themselves.

Like the staccato, arpeggiated piano that is continually breaking in over the images (usually non-diegetically), Nathalie Granger is a film that’s broken and in desperate search of some kind of melodious story or theme. Instead what we have is a kind of Bressonian minimalism taken to an extreme state: painterly long-takes of figures seemingly frozen in time and space. There’s also a Renoir-like impressionistic element; imagine the idyllic nature of A Day in the Country, for instance. Oh, the images are frequently stunning, undoubtedly: Director Marguerite Duras frames-within-frames-within-frames-within-frames technique creates some marvelous optical illusions, and the chateau setting and its surrounding make for naturally picturesque images. But unlike Bresson, what’s missing is a soul, and unlike Renoir, what’s missing is humanity. Ultimately, Nathalie Granger is a film that’s more impressive and fascinating than it is enjoyable or rewarding, but for viewers who have exhausted the filmographies of Bresson and Renoir (and Tarr), then it might prove to be interesting viewing.

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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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