Dir. Anne Fontaine. France 2003. 105 mins.
Following on from Dry Cleaning and How I Killed My Father, the two films which established her as one of the most interesting French filmmakers of the current generation, Anne Fontaine again goes out to explore the troubled subconscious of the prim, apparently self-satisfied and flourishing bourgeoisie of her country.
A woman's picture through and through, Nathalie deals with the fascination of a respectable but rather unimaginative upper middle class doctor for her husband's infatuation with other women. The original script, in which film buffs will recognise traces of Bresson's 1945 classic Les Dames Du Bois De Boulogne, is by Philippe Blasband of Une Liaison Pornographique fame, and engages again in a sexual game bordering on perversity.
However, the central theme of the film is subterfuge; as such it is a picture that discusses rather than displays intimate relations, and its success will depend on the extent of trust the audience have for what they are shown.
The glow provided by the names of Ardant, Beart and Depardieu in the title roles should carry the film easily through its initial release, but once word of mouth spreads around and the essence of the dramatic device is revealed, it will have a much harder time travelling, both at home and abroad. The film opens in France on Jan 7.
Catherine (Ardant), a gynaecologist who believes she is happily married to a successful businessman, Bernard (Depardieu), suspects that her husband has slept with another woman, but instead of throwing a tantrum she chooses to take the initiative and be the one to guide and control his future extra-marital affairs. She approaches a hooker, Marlene (Beart) and offers to pay her if she will agree to put on a new personality, call herself Nathalie, start a relationship with the husband and come back to tell everything about it.
Marlene, who claims to be a professional who never allows her feelings to meddle with business, provides the amazed wife with all the lurid details she can bear to hear and more. She describes for her scenes of sexual excess that Catherine, despite her profession, would have never dreamed nor associated with her spouse. The frequent encounters between the two women lead to a growing dependence between them, Marlene as keen to tell her stories, as Catherine is to listen to them.
Significantly, however, as exhaustive as the reports are, they are never supported by any kind of visual evidence, this being one of those films which is as much about suggestive power of imagination as it is about female sexuality. Since the picture adopts Catherine's point of view throughout and since it appears she is only too eager to believe everything she is told, it is up to the audience to decide whether they want to go along with her or start asking questions.
The second alternative risks defusing the dramatic finale of its sense, for Catherine may be left the only one shocked by the truth, the audience having suspected all along what has been going on. Though this does not affect the portrait Fontaine's film tries to project, it makes the process of painting it much less interesting.
The script provides all the necessary motivations, carefully worked out, and it is evident that each one of the two women is exploring, through the other, a world that is alien to her, and is fascinated by what they discover in the process. Among other things, Catherine's attraction to the turbulent darkness of sexual passions she has never experienced, and the lure of relative respectability on hard-bitten Marlene. But neither Ardant's serene smile as she walks through her part, nor Beart's constant pout, indicate that they are carried away by their fascinations. The first stays as demure as she is in the opening sequence, the second as wantonly vulgar as she claims to be when Catherine first meets her.
An additional angle on female angst generated by age and solitude, is introduced through the character of Catherine's mother, in a cameo by veteran Judith Magre. While entrusted to a major star of Depardieu's magnitude, Bernard's character remains marginal all through, merely providing the trigger to a plot in which he doesn't really participate.
Prod cos: Les Films Alain Sarde
Int'l sales: StudioCanal
French dist: Mars Films
Exec prod: Christine Gozlan
Prod: Alain Sarde
Scr: Jacques Fieschi, Anne Fontaine, Francois-Olivier Rousseau, original screenplay by Philippe Blasband
Cinematography: Jean-Marc Fabre
Ed: Emmanuelle Castro
Prod. des: Michel Barthelemy
Costumes: Pascaline Chavanne
Music: Michael Nyman
Sound: Jean-Pierre Laforce, Jean-Claude Laureux
Main cast: Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart, Gerard Depardieu, Judith Magre, Rodolphe Pauly, Wladimir Yordanoff