One of the great clichés about French culture – fed by the films of Catherine Breillat or La Lectrice (1988), Roland Barthes' The Lover's Discourse or the collected works of the Marquis de Sade – is that, if there is one thing French people like more than having sex, it is talking rather profoundly about it.
Nathalie ... is the latest French film to play up to this notion. The plot premise is simple but elegant. Catherine (Fanny Ardant) is worried about the straying of her disaffected husband, Bernard (Gérard Depardieu). So she hires a prostitute, Marlene (Emmanuelle Béart), to lure Bernard into an affair, using the fake identity of "Nathalie".
Catherine's aim is not vulgar or melodramatic – she does not want to catch Bernard in the act, for example. With a mixture of wounded pride and perverse pleasure, she simply wants to hear Marlene's detailed account of each encounter with Bernard: what he says, what he does, what he likes.
What's really driving Catherine? Like many French dramas, this one is a subtle, psychological mystery. Does she hope to revive her love with Bernard? Is she plucking up the courage for her own extra-marital adventure? Does she seek a new life? And then there's the intriguing, unspoken bond of friendship between Catherine and the enigmatic Marlene: where is that going?
The film is essentially a two-hander for the women, and they perform superbly, often framed in soulful, lingering close-ups. Bernard is, quite rightly, in the margins of the drama – but Depardieu manages, in a mere handful of scenes, to give him unexpected depth beyond the cliché of the philanderer.
Director Anne Fontaine and co-writer Jacques Fieschi are fine talents working in the French mainstream. Together they give this film its modest strengths: lovely dialogue, a graceful rhythm, insight into character and behaviour. The premise runs out of steam before the fairly predictable ending, but this is not the kind of movie you go to for its big narrative revelation.
In the tradition of Claude Sautet's Nelly and Mr Arnaud (1995), it is a tale of quiet, psychological transitions, melancholic moods and respectful forays into the mysteries of the human heart.
© Adrian Martin April 2004