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 Nathalie

Chloe (2009)

France, Canada, US / 97 minutes / color / Studio Canal, Montecito, Sony Dir: Atom Egoyan Pr: Ivan Reitman, Joe Medjuck, Jeffrey Clifford Scr: Erin Cressida Wilson Story: Nathalie . . . (2003 movie) Cine: Paul Sarossy Cast: Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Max Thieriot, R.H. Thomson, Mishu Vellani, Nina Dobrev, Meghan Heffern.

Chloe 2009 - Catherine (Moore) tormented by the machinations of Chloe (Seyfried)

 Catherine (Moore) tormented by the machinations of Chloe (Seyfried)

Toronto gynecologist Catherine Stewart (Moore), discovering seemingly incontrovertible evidence that the reason music professor husband David (Neeson) failed to make it home in time for his surprise birthday party was that he was dallying with pretty student Miranda (Heffern), hires classy hotel hooker Chloe Sweeney (Seyfried) to test his loyalty. In a series of meetings between the two women, Chloe describes in detail her progressively more intimate encounters with David, up to and including their first full intercourse.

During the evening after that revelation by Chloe to Catherine, Catherine and David attend a Beethoven recital by their pianist son Michael (Thieriot); afterward, Catherine is so appalled by David’s intimations of love for her that she rushes to the hotel where Chloe plies her trade and drags her to a room where the two seduce each other.

But then, when Catherine tricks Chloe into a meeting where David is also present, it’s perfectly obvious David has no recollection of ever having seen her before; it seems Chloe has, from the outset, been godgaming Catherine, has been intent on seducing her, that she wants to be Catherine . . . In one of her more ferocious attempts to put herself into the place of Catherine, Chloe lies: “He says that, when he touches you, he feels like he’s cheating on me. Ain’t that crazy?” When Catherine finally rejects her, by which time David is of course out of bounds, Chloe tries to seize Catherine’s affections by seducing Michael—who, a gawky teenager who has yet to escape his mother’s choice for him of frightful pale blue underpants, is only too ready to oblige.

As we’d anticipate from a remake of a French movie, the sensibilities on display are far more European than the North American norm, in particular that it succeeds in being about sex, with some fairly graphic moments, yet stays far away from hack erotica; its affect is very much like that of UNFAITHFUL (2002), whose origins were similar.

This is the movie Neeson was making when his wife Natasha Richardson suffered her fatal skiing accident; he apparently took a few days off, then returned to finish off shooting. Plenty of US critics felt it was unfortunate that the tragedy wasn’t marked by a better movie, but really there’s nothing wrong with Chloe as an exploration of obsession and a sort of gender-reversed riff on FATAL ATTRACTION (1987)—although it’s a far more intelligent and less lurid variant on that theme. That said, its original, Nathalie . . . (2003), is by far the better (and, despite largely eschewing nudity and simulated sex, the more movingly erotic) movie.

On Chloe