An intriguing idea with a heavyweight cast achieves only partial fulfillment in "Nathalie...," an intellectual-cum-sexual teaser whose twist is apparent far too early on. Story of a bourgeois wife who hires a hooker to get revenge on her philandering husband is played and shot with an obsessive regard for surfaces that don't hide much underneath.

An intriguing idea with a heavyweight cast achieves only partial fulfillment in “Nathalie…,” an intellectual-cum-sexual teaser whose twist is apparent far too early on. Story of a bourgeois wife who hires a hooker to get revenge on her philandering husband is played and shot with an obsessive regard for surfaces that finally don’t hide much underneath. With its sexy undercurrents, and the names of Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart and Gerard Depardieu attached, this should attract initial attention, but word of mouth isn’t likely to be strong enough to make this a major earner.

Director Anne Fontaine’s career took a qualitative leap with “The Way I Killed My Father” (2001), a piercing, Chabrolian study of a bourgeois family helmed with great assurance and technical finesse. “Nathalie…” has the same cool, calm style and promises a similarly trenchant drama, but as the film unspools it becomes increasingly obvious that the script, the product of many hands, isn’t quite up to the job.

Catherine (Ardant) is a middle-aged obstetrician with a comfortable life and seemingly happy marriage to Bertrand (Depardieu). She’s disappointed when she arranges a surprise party for Bertrand but he phones to say he’s missed his flight from Zurich; she shrugs it off with the practiced elan of a society hostess.

Next morning, however, after Bertrand accidentally leaves his cell phone in their apartment, she hears a message on it from a young woman thanking him for the great sex they had the previous night. When Catherine calmly confronts him later on, Bertrand says the liaison was unimportant and not worth making an issue of. Catherine appears to drop the matter, apparently afraid to derail a marriage that has been cooling for some time.

On the way home from work one day, she wanders into a private club, where she’s attended to by Nathalie (Beart), one of the upscale hookers. After making clear she hasn’t come for lesbian sex, Catherine hires her to pick up Bertrand at his favorite bistro and report regularly to her on progress.

With its tempered performances, soigne widescreen lensing by Jean-Marc Fabre and cool music by Michael Nyman, pic hits just the right stylized note to make the novelistic idea work onscreen. Script starts to put some meat on its bones as the two women meet regularly, and Nathalie describes how the affair is going.

Pic’s seeming intent is to show Catherine taking charge of the situation by sexually manipulating her errant spouse and thus gaining some kind of liberation. However, this concept never gets off the starting block — a quickie between Catherine and a handsome young bartender rings false — and the film turns into an examination of an unlikely friendship between an emotionally needy upper-middle-class professional and a hard-nosed working-class hooker.

Gradually, their relationship becomes less professional, with Catherine tracking Nathalie down to her part-time day job as a cosmetician and even taking her along on a visit to her mom (Judith Magre).

Individually, Ardant and Beart are fine, the former with her trademark composure and ironic bearing, the latter looking more doll-like and icily sexy than ever. Beart is terrific at portraying Nathalie’s knee-jerk approach to business, chatting up the older woman and exploiting her weaknesses. In that respect, pic plays almost like a one-way seduction, with Nathalie seeing their relationship as her ultimate professional challenge.

There is, however, no special chemistry between the two actresses onscreen, which makes the big twist emotionally underwhelming. When all’s said and done, and all the games have been played, the movie leaves little aftertaste.

For reasons that become clear at the end, Depardieu is offscreen most of the time and very reined in when he’s around. Other roles are largely bits, though Magre, as Catherine’s theatrical mother, brings a vigor to her scenes that’s absent from the other lead performances.

Nathalie . . .

France

Production

A Les Films Alain Sarde production, in association with France 2 Cinema, DD Prods., Vertigo Films Espagne, Canal Plus, Sofica Studio Images. (International sales: StudioCanal, Boulogne-Billancourt, France.) Produced by Alain Sarde. Executive producer, Christine Gozlan. Directed by Anne Fontaine. Screenplay, Fontaine, Jacques Fieschi, Francois-Olivier Rousseau, from an original screenplay by Philippe Blasband.

Crew

Camera (color, Panavision Alga Paris widescreen), Jean-Marc Fabre; editor, Emmanuelle Castro; music, Michael Nyman; production designer, Michel Barthelemy; costumes, Pascaline Chavanne; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), Eric Ferret, Jean-Pierre Laforce, Jean-Claude Laureux; assistant director, Thierry Verrier; casting, Richard Rousseau. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Galas), Sept. 10, 2003. Running time: 105 MIN.

With

Fanny Ardant, Emmanuelle Beart, Gerard Depardieu, Judith Magre, Wladimir Yordanoff, Rodolphe Pauly, Idit Cebula.
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