As an American, I always admire the cavalier attitude that the French seem to have toward sex. A friend of mine recently admitted that French people (of which he is one) will frequently discuss their sex lives openly and without reservation, but are surprisingly tight-lipped about personal finances. Americans don’t usually like to talk about either subject in a public setting, though the latter is probably more likely to come up among friends than the former. Naturally these stereotypes don’t hold true all the time, but there is a much greater sense of sexual freedom in French cinema, and one can only imagine that this is a reflection of actual cultural sentiments.
In Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (sometimes billed as Nathalie X), sex is a source of both pain and pleasure, an irresistible urge and an overwhelming burden. Catherine (Fanny Ardant) is happily married to Bernard (Gérard Depardieu), until she discovers that he has been cheating on her. She becomes rather despondent, but does not wish to reveal what she knows to him. Instead, Catherine seeks out the services of Nathalie (Emmanuelle Béart), a high-end escort who works at a nearby club. She pays Nathalie to begin an affair with Bernard, and report back to her with all of the sordid details.
Though there is certainly a sense of tension that gradually builds, the film is a slow burn, making us engage with the story without needing to bombard us with attention-grabbing revelations; we are also left to understand the characters based on their expressions and the mood of the story, rather than excessive exposition. Catherine becomes increasingly detached from her life, allowing her sense of betrayal to build with each new lie Bernard tells her. Fanny Ardant is incredible as a woman who sees her life falling apart all around her, and rather than trying to mend it, actively encourages her husband’s indiscretions to continue. Béart is equally convincing as the seductive, professional, if not entirely trustworthy escort. From years of pleasing people for money, she has honed her skills and developed a keen awareness of the subtle communications we send, intentionally or otherwise.
While Nathalie… does feature a rather jarring twist in the final act, the plot proceeds much as one would expect after the pieces have all been set. Nathalie’s relationship with Bernard grows more and more intimate, and her meetings with Catherine become increasingly uncomfortable as a result. Catherine never loses her poise and sense of righteous indignation, but she still struggles to hide the pain that Bernard’s betrayal has caused her.
The story and performances in Nathalie… are both engaging and superbly executed, which is why the technical aspects of the film are so disappointing. The camerawork is simplistic, though this is not necessarily a problem. The camera pans from person to person, giving us the best possible vantage point of the action, but offers us little in terms of experimentation or interesting mise en scène. However where the film really falls short is the editing. Rather than allowing the editing to either disappear into the film, or standout as particularly innovative, it comes across as amateur and noticeably subpar. In a competently cut film, scenes blend together organically, allowing our minds to understand the significance of the filmmaker’s juxtapositions without being distracting, but that is simply not the case in this film. Some sequences end rather abruptly, while others fade to black at awkward moments, only to fade back in when the action has only advanced by a few seconds. It is surprising to see such strange technical choices from such a talented group of artists, and it takes away from an otherwise exceptional and under-appreciated film.
Despite its shortcomings, Nathalie… is a fascinating rumination on the quagmire that is infidelity, as well as the complexities of sexual attraction and intimacy.
Rating: ★★★½ out of 5