In Anne Fontaine's Nathalie, we're barely treated to the cozy spectacle of Parisian bourgeois respectability of married couple Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) and Catherine (Fanny Ardant) - he's a well-off businessman of some kind, she's a doctor, they move in comfortable circles - before it gets broken up by Catherine's discovery that Bernard has been having an affair. Of course, this is a French film, so when Catherine tells her mother about Bernard's serial philandering, she responds only, "What a nuisance." One can be forgiven for thinking that, even taking into account the Gallic factor, Catherine's mother lacks in the empathy department.
What makes Nathalie different than your run of the mill tale of infidelity is what Catherine decides to do after receiving this news. She frets a bit about her husband, but instead of tossing him out or simply shrugging and getting on with things, she's left uneasy, pining with curiosity. Fortunately, there's a house of ill repute just around the corner from her office, so Catherine decides to do a little field research on what makes men do these sorts of things. Popping into the "private club," all tacky red décor and overly made-up girls, Catherine drinks whiskey straight and gets to know the prettiest girl in the joint, Marlène (Emmanuelle Béart).
Catherine has a request for Marlène: pretend to be a girl named Nathalie, meet Bernard, seduce him, and then report back to her with all the juicy details. Her marriage is one of those cordial but absent ones, where spouses pass like vaguely familiar shapes in the night - perversely, Bernard's affair seems to have made him visible again to Catherine, and now she wants to know more about him, his desires, everything. As cinematic conceits go, it's a tough one to swallow at first, though at least Fontaine (who also co-wrote the spare, smart script) has the intelligence to make Catherine's plan seem rather haphazard and ill-planned, and all the more realistic seeming for it.
Where Nathalie is most enjoyable is in the slowly blooming friendship between Catherine and Marlène, two women who likely would never have otherwise come together. The more sordid details that Marlène tells Catherine about her trysts with an impressively randy and imaginative Bernard, the closer they become. As the film progresses, and Catherine becomes closer to Marlène but more and more confused about her marriage, Ardant registers astonishingly precise gradations of happiness, jealousy and despair. Béart proves almost Ardant's equal, with her look of intense, almost starved hunger - she has an intensity, but it's ultimately a more shallow kind. The finely articulated layers of their unlikely friendship are handled nicely by Fontaine, who should also be commended for making a French film about a well-off couple where the wife not only works but has an impressive job.
This is a film that doesn't stand up to much analysis in the end, as too much of the plot hinges on a last-act surprise that should be blatantly obvious to most viewers about halfway into the film. However, Fontaine's well-mannered, though never dull, style is a treat, as is the limpid Michael Nyman score. Nathalie, for its seedy settings and prurient trappings, is really at heart just a simple story about friendship and marriage, and the lies that sustain them.
The DVD includes a making-of featurette.