The premise of this film -- an aging woman hires a gorgeous, up-scale hooker to begin an affair with her philandering husband in order to re-learn what turns him on -- is so slight that it's reminiscent of Woody Allen's experiment in Melinda & Melinda. Comedy, drama, or thriller could be grown from this seed, depending on the director's whim. But the pleasant surprise of Anne Fontaine's Nathalie. . . is its unwillingness to fully commit to any one genre. Instead, a potential plot twist is dangled before our eyes in the opening scenes and then brushed back under the rug, leaving us with a kernel of suspense to go with an otherwise straightforward story about a woman's wounded pride and her increasing fascination with the way a beautiful, sexy woman can set a fire in her husband's mind in a way she never could.

The beautiful woman in question is Marlene, played by French star Emmanuelle Beart, who recently starred in Danis Tanovic's Hell, a not-uninteresting updating of Euripides' Medea. Even though the crossover bridge has been presumably lowered for Beart several times over the years, it's in French cinema that she's remained most prominent. To American audiences, she is still most recognizable as Claire, the foxy turncoat with the heavy French accent in Brian DePalma's Mission: Impossible.

The older woman, Catherine (Fanny Ardant) is left holding the bag when her husband Bernard (Gerard Depardieu) fails to show up at his own surprise birthday party because of his entanglement with another woman. "The surprise is on us," she says poignantly to the assembled guests. Proof of his infidelity soon follows, and fifteen minutes into the film Catherine is wandering into a discrete brothel that operates near the doctor's office where she works. A few pleasantries are exchanged and a hasty business arrangement is proposed: Marlene will pose as Nathalie, a young professional woman with a respectable job. Nathalie will wander into the coffee shop frequented by Bernard at just the right time, ask him for a light, and make sure he gets an eyeful of her supermodel good looks. If he takes the bait, she is to report back every detail of their sexual encounter to Catherine. It's the details that most interest Catherine. She is soon pumping Marlene for information relentlessly. "What happened next" is her most frequent guidance, and Marlene is happy to play along, since she's being well paid. She relates her encounters with Bernard as descriptively as if she were watching the whole thing on video and describing it to a blind man. "Then I walked across the room.....then I stopped for a second....then I unwrapped a condom.....then I sat up." The more details she can shake out of her memory, the more eager Catherine is to stuff an envelope of cash into her hand.

The same scene happens over and over. Marlene and Catherine meet to exchange money for stories. Catherine exhibits the stamina of a fetishist who will never tire of going through the same old routine. Her eyes widen every time Marlene begins to talk, and she interrupts only to request that something be repeated, like a detective trying to nail a suspect down to one story. "Ever consider a threesome?" Marlene asks her at one point. Catherine dismisses this suggestion outright. Her obsession is with discovering exactly how her husband behaves sexually with another woman. To be present would spoil it; she'd learn nothing new. Even though she's the one being paid, Marlene's commitment is not as strong as Catherine's. She begins to change. The stories she tells begin to get more elaborate. The sex is getting wilder. "He asked me to spit in his ass-crack." Soon she begins to hint that Bernard may be falling in love with her and may leave Catherine. Is Marlene embellishing the situation? Is she telling Catherine what she thinks she wants to hear? And why does Catherine sit still for all of these stories and then go home to Bernard at night, as if nothing happened?

It's the last question that's most intriguing. Marlene guesses early on that the gambit with the husband may be a way for Catherine to get around to expressing her own desire to be with a woman. Marlene helpfully spells out that, as a prostitute, she's game for anything and subterfuge is not necessary. But Catherine continues to insist on the same arrangement. There will eventually be a firm resolution to the uneasy arrangement between Marlene and Catherine, and everyone's motives will be uncovered, but the film wisely doesn't set up marital infidelity as a problem that can be solved. That's why Gerard Depardieu is a perfect choice to be play Bernard -- it's impossible to conceive of him as being morally uncomfortable with himself. His essential Depardieu-ness allows him to carry off the part of a serially unfaithful husband without making the character appear slimy or uncaring to the audience. His eyes tell us that he has no interest in playing power games or in arbitrarily hurting anyone's feelings, only in doing what he needs to do to get by. When Catherine first confronts him, his response is one of embarrassment, not guilt. As he explains to her, "I know it hurts you, but it's just so unimportant to me. It's so banal."

The director's decision to limit the scope of the film to the three principals -- there are no subplots and hardly any other speaking roles -- is a correct one. Nathalie. . . is a guessing game. The more we try to guess the motivations of each character, the less information the film gives us. Frequent fade outs at crucial moments are a central device used here. The director's refusal to show any bit of the copious amounts of sex talked about in the film is also noticeable. Even the clandestine discussions of sex are shot in uncomfortable places, such as a doctor's office and within earshot of someone's mother. In a subtle way, she seems to be implying that simply allowing a zone of sexual privacy even for your significant other would be the more healthy way to go than the cloak and dagger route. How French.

CATEGORIES Reviews, Cinematical