France (2003) Dir. Anne Fontaine
Catherine (Fanny Ardant) is a married woman who suspects her businessman husband Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) is cheating on her, so he hires high class prostitute Marlène (Emmanuelle Béart) – working under the pseudonym “Nathalie” – to seduce Bernard in order to get the truth. Marlène is paid by Catherine to report back with accounts of every meeting, each one more sordid then the last, making Catherine wondering about the desires of both herself and her husband while suspecting Marlène’s motives.
If the plot sounds familiar that is because Hollywood got their grubby mitts on this and remade it in 2009 as Chloe with Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried. This version has what is considered a dream cast with three of France’s top actors – Ardant, Depardieu and Béart – and with a scintillating storyline to work with, there are lot of high expectations placed on it before the disc even enters the DVD player. While it’s a well made and well acted film it however lacks that certain je ne sais quoi to meet those lofty expectations.
It is Bernard’s seemingly unapologetic missing of a surprise birthday party which triggers Catherine’s although the suggestion is that she has held these for some time. On whim she enters a strip bar-cum-brothel where she first spots Marlène/Nathalie and puts her unusual proposition to her. The first report from the first meeting shocks Catherine when Marlène tells her she and Bernard slept together, something Catherine never sanctioned or expected Marlène to do.
As the deal continues, Marlène’s stories become more and more explicit with Bernard’s desires and wants apparently becoming more adventurous and perverted. Catherine is appalled to learn about this as she no longer recognises her husband from Marlène’s reports, leading to Catherine to snub her husband’s advances when he is at home. Slowly though Catherine seems to find some sort of fascination in these reports and her own boundaries of sexual desires begin to show signs of blossoming, along with an unusual and potentially unhealthy bond forming between Catherine and Marlène.
Some of you may have already predicted how the story plays out and frankly it is not to difficult to have it figured out once things get into full swing. And you might be right although there are a few little surprises waiting just to keep you on your toes. With the intrigue now a little diluted by the predictability of the outcome there is a palpable sense of something missing as the story meanders on.
To keep the spice level up we are treated some naked sauciness courtesy of the stunning Emmanuelle Béart, who even at 40 years old at the time of filming was hotter than most women half her age. There are times when these seem a tad gratuitous since most of the prior smut was expressed verbally via Marlène’s reports and thus had a more potent shock factor with Marlène’s frank delivery of the gory details.
Both women go on a journey of personal discovery while Bernard remains something of a cipher to measure their progress. Their work lived also add a curious layer to their connection: Catherine is a gynaecologist so she is also around sexual matters for most of her working day while Marlène is only a part time prostitute by night, earning her honest crust as a beautician by day. Which one do you think is looking for normalcy and stability ion their lives? This gives the film the unique female perspective one might expect from a female director; thankfully Anne Fontaine doesn’t use this as a way to pour scorn on philandering men rather to explore the paranoia and curiosities of the supposed aggrieved woman.
The casting of Ardant and Béart was inspired as they both attack their roles with the understanding and intuition required to delve so deep within themselves to portray the two intrinsically flawed women. Depardieu seems almost like a waste since his appearances are fleeting but his subtle and toned performance compliments the overactive actions of the two women in his life.
Despite some nudity and sexual explicit dialogue, Nathalie… is quite a laid back and steady paced exploration of the side effects of an alleged infidelity. It’s a good film, sadly a step away from being a great film, and definitely one for mature audiences – and by that I mean those whole like to think with their brains.