“I think you’d appeal to my husband”
If you found out your spouse was cheating on you and realized how numb you were to the fact so that instead of being angry or vengeful you ask what it is the other lover does to make your husband/wife happy, how would you react when they reply with silence? In Nathalie …, Bernard is confronted by his wife Catherine after she listens to a voicemail on his phone from a girl thanking him for the sex they had the night before, a night that he was stuck abroad and unable to make his own surprise birthday party. They are in bed, each on opposite ends, facing outwards—the physical connection between them all but gone despite still loving each other for the life they’ve spent together and son they’ve raised. Rather than blowing up on him, however, Catherine asks for details, to get answers and see if she can do things to make him interested in her again. But Bernard just brushes it all off, denying having sex with the girl, saying she was simply that, a girl. He doesn’t want to place blame, but realizes they’ve grown apart to the point where the other women are just banal side-notes to his undying love for his wife; he doesn’t want to leave her.
The catch-22 then becomes the fact he won’t divulge any information. He says he didn’t sleep with this girl, but he doesn’t deny there being other women. So what is actually going on? Catherine decides to find out by constructing a mistress for him—a girl she will be in control of, sharing every detail of the relationship. The ruse will be her way of gaining closure. It will expose him as a cheat, it will open her eyes to his sexual needs for her to either adopt in a mutual rekindling of romance of use for her next love to hopefully avoid the same fate, and also it’s the ability to talk candidly about sex with someone, breaking open her own desires left hidden away for too long. Catherine and Bernard know the largest void in their relationship is communication, but rather than open up and work things out, more deceit and half-truths looking to get the other to share while they keep secrets until the last possible moment build. The only option in her mind now is to enter the brothel down the street from her gynecological practice and find a young prostitute willing to seduce her husband. It’s a play for power, but one she doesn’t quite have the control over that she believes.
Marlène is the young woman enlisted for the job. She is a diploma-holding hairstylist who earns most of her income by escorting ‘dates’ upstairs at her night job. Seeing a professional woman alone, drinking a whiskey and peering at the bar, intrigues her, causing introductions and the offer that she’s willing to be with another woman when most girls there would not. But Catherine says no, she isn’t there for herself. She then lays her game out on the table, Marlène would assume the identity of ‘Nathalie’, a nice girl attempting to begin a career as a translator who will happen to stumble upon Bernard at is usual morning haunt for coffee. The encounter is set and off she goes, asking him for a light and sitting down nearby, starring with her piercing gaze and pouting lips, awaiting him to no longer bear the distance, approaching her for more. We listen as she tells Catherine the details of the rendezvous as well as subsequent encounters; regular meetings are used to share the day’s events in every sordid detail as well as to exchange payment for services rendered.
Catherine originally wanted Bernard to be the one in control, to fall apart in his lust, yet when Marlène explains how it was her who initiated their first carnal embrace on the second date, the obvious anger soon subsides. Not only has ‘Nathalie’ won over Bernard, but she has also seduced Catherine with her candid accounts. You see, we never actually watch Nathalie and her new lover together; we only hear the aftermath from Marlène. Much like the jilted wife, we listen to the second-hand stories and watch the new interactions between the couple, snidely aware of his lies and the knowledge that she knows the truth. But who is truly in control? Catherine may know what is going on behind her back, but she isn’t Marlène’s owner; the girl may be a professional—she will never reach climax with a client, faking it as she is a blank slate—but even so, an intensely passionate exchange can only be ignored so long. Feelings will be created and eventually Catherine herself may become ‘the other woman’. It’s Marlène who becomes the true wielder of power, wrapping Bernard around her finger as well as his wife, a woman now entranced by her every word and account of dirty talk, salacious acts, and rough physicality never experienced in her own marriage.
They are now dangerous friends bonded by a secret, only the depths of it are never fully revealed at first. Emmanuelle Bèart is stunning as the chameleon Marlène, exotic at all times, but able to transform from heavily made-up whore to the freckled youthful beauty of a normal girl wandering the street. She relishes the moments in which she can share with Catherine her activities, reveling in the sensuality of every word, watching as the woman who hired her looks back with a mixture of disgust at what her husband is capable of and arousal at the prospect of pleasure she too could be having. There becomes a co-dependent relationship as Fanny Ardant’s performance as Catherine opens the up to once again become that young girl known to have men frequent her childhood bed. The danger of what’s happening awakens a sleeping beast within her, shutting down inhibitions as she is now willing to go out dancing, laugh with her new ‘friend’, and even think about an affair of her own. All the while, Gérard Depardieu’s Bernard is left alone on the fringes, completely unaware of the two women’s connection. He tries so hard to reach his wife—especially after she begins to do the little things Marlène says sparks him—but she pulls away and he continues to leave on business trips.
So, rather than be a film about adultery, Nathalie … becomes a look into the relationship of two women, one ‘open for business’ as you say and the other sexually repressed in her age bracket’s defeat. Director Anne Fontaine makes it about the wife and the mistress, cavorting around town as they pull the strings of the man between them. She utilizes lingering shots of each actor in the lead trio and their expressive faces emoting. We see pain and pleasure, each with a hidden secret from the other and us—we never do see the three romantically involved together. Fontaine tells the tale through accounts after the fact, creating a lingering question of what is actually truth. Sometimes the most outlandish lies are the easiest to believe, especially when communication is cut off. Paranoia sets in and the worst is unquestioned by a need for facts. But one must be careful to not fall prey to his/her own game. Catherine may be pulling the wool over Bernard’s eyes, yet her only proof resides in the words of Marlène, a girl who makes a living on becoming a lie. And while I figured out the film’s secret revelation after about twenty minutes, its effectiveness towards Catherine’s transformation cannot be denied.
Nathalie … 7/10 | ★ ★ ★