Bernard (Gerald Depardieu) and Catherine (Fanny Ardant) are a professional couple who have been happily married for many years when Catherine discovers that Bernard has been cheating on her. As a form of revenge, or perhaps for more complex reasons of her own, she hires a prostitute (Emmanuelle Beart) to seduce her husband under the name Nathalie - posing as a 'regular girl' - and report back to her on what takes place. Catherine hopes to figure out what's making Bernard cheat, and what she can do about it. After a couple of meetings, things seem to be progressing far too quickly for Catherine's liking; but she somehow can't bring herself to stop it.
Review by Jake Wilson:
Nathalie could be described as feeble arthouse porn, except it has little art and (sadly) even less porn: if you want to listen to Emmanuelle Beart spin softcore fantasies in French while the camera fixates on Fanny Ardant's twitching facial muscles, this could be for you. I hate to say it, but this is really a wish-fulfilment fantasy for middle-aged women, extracting some mild thrills from a masochistic romantic triangle and a coyly eroticised relationship between the two female leads, before returning to safe "normality" via a final twist that any half-awake viewer should be able to spot a mile off.
It's true that most movies which get released are wish-fulfilment fantasies for young-to-middle-aged men, and perhaps it's only fair that other groups should have the chance to enjoy themselves in the same way. Still, a mediocre film of this kind does reveal the limits of a certain idea of "intelligent, mature" cinema.
Like many upmarket European filmmakers, Anne Fontaine tends to film dialogue scenes in relatively long takes from the perspective of a slightly detached observer - preserving the integrity of the performers' gestures rather than throwing Hollywood-style emphasis on plot points or emotional "beats". But while her style isn't crudely manipulative, it's also not terribly interesting, and doesn't give much assistance to the trio of polished actors who do their best with the thin script.
In any case, the appearance of sophisticated ambiguity is only skin deep. Fontaine retains a number of strategies for telling her audience how to feel, some of them not very subtle at all - the corny use of music, for example.
Review by David Edwards:
Nathalie is one of those films that makes you wonder if relationships in France are simply more complicated than anywhere else in the world. Although the idea of one partner testing the other's resolve is hardly a new one, and this effort from director Anne Fontaine doesn't really take it to any new levels. It does however delve into some risky territory, and mostly pulls it off.
Most of the story is relayed through conversations between Marlène and Catherine, so the film becomes very "talky", almost like a filmed play. This means that you really have to be involved in the story to get the most from the film. It's a big ask for a director to keep this type of material moving along, and the pace does drag somewhat.
The plot itself is fairly straightforward, but does have a significant twist towards the end. Fontaine (who wrote the screenplay) telegraphs the twist sufficiently that the astute will almost certainly pick up on it. Since the film is already deliberately paced, if you work out the twist, it might seem even slower as it moves towards resolution.
Fontaine opts for a fairly unembellished directorial style, yet oddly introduces a few flourishes, which seem out of place. These are however little more than distractions from the main thrust of the drama.
Nathalie sustains itself mainly due to Fontaine's ability to control the film's subtext and the performances from a powerhouse cast. This is a film in which what's not said is as important as what is, where nuance plays a crucial role and where the most dangerous emotions are kept repressed. Reading those elements requires some effort, but it's worth it.
The cast is led by the still-radiant Fanny Ardant as Catherine. She plays the part in an understated style, consistent with Fontaine's approach to the film itself; yet she commands the screen. The ever-combustible Emmanuelle Béart plays Marlène in a similarly restrained vein, softening the character's hard-bitten nature with flashes of vulnerability. Gérard Depardieu is solid as Bernard, although he doesn't actually have a lot to do, as the film concentrates on the relationship between the two women.
A difficult film in many ways, Nathalie has rewards for those prepared to stay with it. It's not terribly accessible, but with the strength of its cast and the story's dangerous edge elevate it above the ponderous. A tighter script would have helped, but as it is, Nathalie remains a stylish, if talkative, drama.
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CAST: Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart, Gérard Depardieu, Wladimir Yordanoff, Judith Magre, Rodolphe Pauly, Évelyne Dandry, Christian Aaron Boulogne
PRODUCER: Alain Sarde
DIRECTOR: Anne Fontaine
SCRIPT: Philippe Blasband, Jacques Fieschi, Anne Fontaine, François-Olivier Rousseau
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Jean-Marc Fabre
EDITOR: Emmanuelle Castro
MUSIC: Michael Nyman
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Michel Barthélémy
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane: April 8, 2004