Nathalie . . . (2003)

France, Spain / 105 minutes / color / Sarde, France2, DD, Vertigo, Canal+, Sofica Dir: Anne Fontaine Pr: Alain Sarde Scr: Anne Fontaine, Jacques Fieschi, François-Olivier Rousseau Story: Philippe Blasband Cine: Jean-Marc Fabre Cast: Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Béart, Gérard Depardieu, Wladimir Yordanoff, Judith Magre, Rodolphe Pauly, Évelyne Dandry, Ari Paffgen.

Convinced that her realtor husband Bernard (Depardieu) has been playing around, gynaecologist Catherine (Ardant) hires a hooker, Marlène (Béart), to come on to him—calling herself Nathalie—and see what happens. Later the two women meet and Marlène/Nathalie describes a fairly passionate encounter. Over the next few weeks they meet several times, with Marlène/Nathalie giving increasingly graphic descriptions of her sexual bouts with Bernard—a Bernard whose raw masculinity, as depicted in the girl’s accounts, Catherine has difficulty recognizing: are these recounted mighty feats of studliness things that he has never dared ask her to do, yet secretly yearns for?

Soon Catherine has become as addicted to the progressive seduction of her husband as fans can become of a soap opera, counting the minutes until the next episode. Meanwhile Bernard, whose business appears to be going through as sticky a patch as his marriage, is become more and more bemused as to why his wife, whom he thought loved him as much as he loves her, has become so distant, as if he’s always committing some offensive faux pas without being aware of having done so. Is it, he wonders, that Catherine is perhaps having an affair? (At one point, feeling betrayed by Bernard, she does have a one-night stand with a barman [Paffgen] half her age, just to prove to herself she can still pull men if she wants to.)

Long before Catherine discovers the truth for herself, we realize that Marlène/Nathalie has been lying, that Bernard showed no interest in her when she approached him and they never met again. As for Marlène/Nathalie’s motive for the charade? Partly, it’s quite strongly hinted, she acts as she does because she’s fallen in love with Catherine (and indeed a strong emotional bond does develop between the two women); but also partly, as she explains during her confession to Catherine, “It was the best chance I ever had . . . not having to do it.”
This was given a Hollywood remake as Chloe (2009). Although the two movies obviously share similar plots, the French version is a far deeper, far more nuanced psychological study than the retread. It’s somehow also more erotic, even though there’s surprisingly little nudity and depicted sex; the dialogue here, with Marlène/Nathalie describing sex acts in detail, is far more graphic, but that’s not a contributor to the movie’s erotic charge—if anything, it somewhat curbs it. A significant difference is that there’s no lingering consummation of the relationship between wife and hooker; indeed, there’s no consummation at all, the last we see of them together being an embrace, but an asexual one, as if Catherine were a mother comforting her wayward and hurt daughter.

The casting also makes a difference between the two movies. Julianne Moore is a fine substitute for Catherine and Liam Neeson likewise for Depardieu, but Amanda Seyfried, through no fault of her own, offers us a far shallower portrayal of the callgirl than Béart does here. That shallowness is of course primarily the screenplay’s and director’s responsibility rather than Seyfried’s, but the physical difference between the two actresses is important as well. Seyfried has many of the same physical characteristics as Béart here (the blondeness, the beauty, the eyes like those of an anime princess)—an Identikit artist would produce effectively the same portrait from descriptions of either actress—yet Seyfried simply cannot reproduce the ethereal-seeming waifishness that Béart so effectively deploys in the earlier movie. Further, Marlène/Nathalie is built up as a far more three-dimensional character; her relationships with other hookers are not empty; she has a day job as a beautician; she skates with skill; she’s a human being whose existence goes far beyond her nighttime trade.

Both Béart and Ardant were nominated as Best Actress at the European Film Awards, but otherwise this excellent movie went without accolades.

On Amazon.com: Nathalie