I haven’t seen Gérard Depardieu in a huge number of movies—probably about five in my life—but I always like him for some reason. He has a very interesting-looking face, and just an attention-grabbing screen presence. In Nathalie… he plays someone who isn’t loud, isn’t intense, is the kind of character who should probably fade into the background compared to the much more active two female leads, yet in his understated way he’s still strangely compelling in every scene he’s in.
I suspect Nathalie… is the kind of story that people would describe—flatteringly or dismissively—as quintessentially French, due to the social and sexual mores it portrays.
Depardieu is married to Fanny Ardant. She finds out he is having affairs, which he makes only minimal effort to cover up. (Not that his latest conquest cooperates very well at hiding things. The wife finds out because she checks her husband’s messages and hears her “Hey sure was great having sex last night” message.)
How they react to this situation obviously says a lot about them, but like I say, I think it says something about the French as well. He regards it as a minor transgression because it’s so emotionally insignificant and none of the women he’s had affairs with were important to him. He only feels a little bad, in proportion to how little he feels he’s wronged his wife, almost certainly not enough for him to change his ways. As a mitigating factor for his behavior, he notes that he and his wife have almost no sex life anymore, but he doesn’t say it in an angry or hurtful or accusatory way. And really only in a minimally defensive way, because he doesn’t see himself as having all that much to be defensive about.
At all times he actually displays a warmth toward his wife. He’s worked out a way to get certain needs that aren’t being met in the marriage met elsewhere, but he loves her and prefers not to hurt her in the process. When the prospect of her having an affair comes up, he’s not exactly happy about it, nor pleased that it somehow gives him some cover for his own activity, but he’s not angry either. More of a sigh and a “Well, I may not like it, but I accept it.” So at least he can’t be accused of a double standard.
But again, infidelity just doesn’t carry a lot of moral weight with him. His attitude is that it’s just something that happens, that it’s a little sad in that it stems from imperfections in the marriage, but if it’s handled in a discreet, mature manner and the spouses still love each other, it needn’t be a huge deal.
Ardant clearly sees it as a bigger deal, yet her reaction is mixed and uncertain; she doesn’t respond with the kind of righteous unambiguous fury and condemnation one would presumably expect from an American woman. Her reaction has elements of anger, of thinking less of him, and of self-doubt due to realizing their sex life is indeed unsatisfactory and that that’s at least in part her responsibility, but none of these is really a dominating emotion.
Probably what she feels most is curiosity. It’s almost like she doesn’t want to commit to any particular emotion or assessment until she understands her husband and the situation better. So she wants to know what he’s done, what motivates him, how he feels about it, how it relates to their sex life, what she could do differently to alter the situation, and on and on, but at the same time she’s trepidatious about digging too much because she might find out things she doesn’t want to know. I don’t mean just details of what he’s done, but she might find out things about her marriage and about her own inadequacies, including sexual, that will hurt her.
But still, she wants to know. And she feels she can only get at what she wants to know to a very limited extent by questioning him and talking directly to him. So she concocts a scheme to find out more in an indirect way.
I’m not going to say I’m a hundred percent clear what her goal is for the unlikely plan she initiates, but that’s not necessarily because the movie conveys it poorly (nor because I’m dense, though it certainly might be that). It’s possible she’s not entirely clear herself, that she has mixed motives, that she’s just probing for information in a vague way. Plus one can make the case that her reasons evolve during the process. So there probably is no one unchanging purpose.
She goes to a strip club.
But I want to pause for a moment to first describe the strip club before getting into her scheme, as it’s quite odd compared to any American strip club I’m aware of.
It’s upscale and classy. Everyone is well-dressed and well-behaved. The girls are dressed in a “sexy” manner, but not undressed, and appear not to get undressed. At least not in the main areas; there are indications there are more private rooms of some kind, but the one glimpse we get of one of those, all that’s going on is a sort of lap dance with clothes on.
It seems to be more of a social club, where men pay monstrous prices for drinks in order to sit with attractive women. But it’s implied that some or all of the women are actual prostitutes as well. I don’t know if the sex part happens off-site or in those side rooms or what, and I don’t know if the girls just are open to meeting people for prostitution as free agents when they’re off work or if this establishment itself is in effect running a brothel.
Actually it’s kind of like the real life clubs with the Japanese gigolos in The Great Happiness Space. The people in that film mostly just are drinking and socializing and such at the club, not getting naked or having sex there, but I think elsewhere (when they do at all).
The women themselves are more like classy call girls than hookers, at least from the little evidence available. For instance, some of them apparently work in upscale salons and such before coming to this club and/or turning tricks part time in the evenings.
On the surface, there just isn’t anything like the “sleaze” factor I’d associate with all or most American strip clubs, brothels, etc.
Whether that’s an accurate representation of how such establishments really are in France I don’t know, though it does seem to reflect another cultural difference, another difference in attitudes about sex between there and here.
So anyway, the wife recruits one of the dancers (or prostitutes, or escorts, or women who sit at tables with guys for money, or whatever they are). She wants her to seduce her husband into an affair, and to report back to her how he behaves and everything that transpires between them.
As I say, her precise motives aren’t entirely clear to me. No more than minimally does the point seem to be to “catch” him, to prove he’ll be unfaithful, in order to have something more to hold over his head. (He hasn’t promised not to cheat anymore after all.)
A bigger part of her motivation seems to be that she wants to know what her husband responds to emotionally and especially sexually. Since things are so stale in their marriage, she’d like to know what they and she maybe could do differently to reinvigorate things.
But she’s ambivalent about that. When the girl reports to her that they’ve had sex, she’s knocked off balance by it, and implies that no, you were only supposed to take it up to that point and stop.
But then she—always with trepidation—allows it to continue. Sometimes she wants to know the details, sometimes she doesn’t. Usually she compromises by not insisting on the details but passively accepting them when they’re offered, which they always are.
The girl’s accounts—told in an erotically charged way—repel and fascinate her. It’s hurting her to listen, but she’s eager to learn all she can about this side of her husband.
Plus at some level she’s pretty clearly turned on. I doubt she knows herself precisely why—is she a submissive getting off on the humiliation of having a woman tauntingly describe how much her husband enjoys cheating with her?, is she anticipating doing all these things with her husband herself and having a better marital sex life than in the past?, is she attracted to the girl in a lesbian way and would get off on hearing her talk about sex regardless, even if it were about someone other than her husband?
Her feelings about the girl herself are ambivalent. They are becoming friends, she feels she’s just using the girl for her own purposes, she feels the girl is enjoying making her squirm with her sex stories, she envies certain aspects of the girl’s free-spirited youthful lifestyle, she’s possibly attracted to the girl sexually, and on and on. Certainly she’s looking at her with fascination in every scene they appear in together.
I mentioned Depardieu has a great screen presence and I always find him interesting to watch, but Ardant very much drew me in as well in this film. Something about her face I found mesmerizing. Not that she’s super hot. (My initial reaction was that she’s quite good looking for a woman who’s probably about 45, but that of course that wouldn’t put her in the same league as hot women twenty years younger. I looked it up later and she was actually well past 50 when this movie was made. She looks really, really good for that age.) I think it’s the fact that she always has the slightest hint of a smile on her face. Something about that expression gives me the feeling there’s a lot of depth there, that she’s observing everything carefully, taking it all in, processing it in some emotionally evolved way.
Both the husband and the wife are strongly sympathetic characters to me on some intangible level, out of proportion to their actual behavior.
And then there’s all kinds of stuff going on psychologically with the third main character as well, as much or almost as much to observe and speculate about there as with the husband and wife. What are her motives for what she’s doing? How does she genuinely feel about the husband? How does she genuinely feel about the wife? Is she emotionally connecting with either of them, or just faking and doing her job? Is she sexually drawn to either of them? Is she siding with one while pretending to be sympathetic to the other? How and how much is she deceiving one or both of them?
Though she’s obviously the “hot” one, I actually wasn’t all that drawn to her in that way. I think it’s just that the whole persona of the aloof, ice queen sex worker doesn’t do it for me. For the most part, I associate strippers and call girls and such not with intimacy but with its opposite. I look at someone like her, and I think how hard it must be to get close to her, to make a genuine connection, to have her be totally honest.
I mostly don’t think of someone pole dancing at a club or something like that as very erotic. Put the same person in some “normal” context like just walking down the street and I’d probably be more drawn to her, especially if she were wearing something skimpy that showed the same number of square inches of her body. The whole environment of strip clubs or brothels or meat market singles bars or a call girl in a fancy hotel room, or whatever is supposed to constitute a sexually charged atmosphere, I find makes hot girls less hot. Not that I won’t still look and enjoy looking, but it definitely doesn’t enhance things.
So I didn’t dislike her necessarily, and I wasn’t unattracted to her, but it was more like I could imagine situations where she’d be hot (though frankly not a 10—she really didn’t stand out to me in that regard) and where I’d really want to be close to her, but not in the situations depicted in the film.
I did just OK at anticipating how things would develop in terms of the subtle changes in the characters’ relationships and such, but the one specific thing that I suppose constitutes a big twist at the end I actually predicted. I had a vague sense of it as a possibility from fairly early, but it wasn’t until well past the midway point that it solidified into an expectation.
But I kind of liked getting that right, though maybe all it means is the movie did a poor job concealing it if even I was able to see it coming.
In some ways this is a slow movie, there’s not a huge amount going on on the surface, but there are so many little angles to explore psychologically that it held my interest moderately well. It takes a little more effort than the average film because it requires thought and because of the subtitles, so I won’t say that I wish there could have been more of it, or that I wasn’t kind of glad to see it end, but I feel positive about Nathalie…. I’m glad I invested this time in it.
The feel of the film reminds me of that of Private Fears in Public Places. The differences are the latter movie injects a bit more whimsy and humor, which sometimes works, and this film has characters that are a little bit more compelling as individuals. But they’re both French films about adult relationships and adult emotions, they’re both methodically paced, classy and intelligent, they’re both psychologically interesting without being blow-me-away fascinating.
They’re both above average compared to the movies I’ve written about so far (and without the subtitle factor would be a bit higher still). I have a slight preference for Nathalie….