Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (2003) is named for a woman who, strictly speaking, does not exist. The name is a pseudonym invented by Catherine (Fanny Ardant), a Parisian gynecologist, and given to Marlène (Emmanuelle Béart), a prostitute. Catherine has discovered her husband Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) has been unfaithful. She visits an upscale sex club where she meets Marlène, whom she hires to approach Bernard, arouse his interest, and report back everything that transpires.
From here Fontaine deftly abandons convention, destabilizing our ability to predict the shape into which this erotic triangle will eventually mutate. Rather than focus the narrative on husband and wife or husband and paramour, the engine driving the film is the indecipherable relationship between the two women. Their unconventional arrangement results in an asymmetrical hierarchy of knowledge in which Bernard is completely in the dark, while Catherine ironically finds herself, not literally, but structurally in the position of an adulterer. When, for instance, Marlène phones during dinner, Catherine is unable to admit to her husband and teenage son who it was on the other end of the line.
For a film largely about sexuality, the act itself is never represented on screen. Instead, sex is rendered through speech in a series of increasingly explicit monologues Marlène delivers to Catherine about her ongoing encounters with Bernard. What started out as a straightforward business arrangement (however sordid) becomes increasingly discomforting when Catherine is first agitated by and then begins to doubt the veracity of Marlène’s reports about Bernard and “Nathalie,” always referred to in the third person, suggesting she has taken on a life of her own.
The provocative ellipsis that ends the film’s title reaches into the storytelling itself, which never shies away from leaving unknown or unsaid things a more predictable filmmaker might feel obliged to answer. Fontaine instead relies on abrupt cuts that remove us from scenes and conversations still in the process of unfolding. Nathalie… is ultimately about the many forms the imbrication of desire and seduction can take and, in this way, it is also an essential exploration of the mechanics through which cinema seduces its viewers as it solicits our own voyeuristic desires to see and know.
Jamie Hook is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he also received his MA in 2012. His current research explores the role of media adaptation practices across film, literature, and theater during the sexual revolution and their role in reorganizing taste cultures and negotiating social stigmas.