Mutual desire rattles the loneliness in the lives of two women, one a prostitute the other a gynecologist. One is a shell of controlling sexuality and the other statuesque and supremely elegant. Both are under each other’s spell and falling into infatuation.
The territory is familiar. Well, almost. Catherine (Fanny Ardant) learns via a voicemail message that her husband, Bernard (Gerard Dépardieu) has slept with someone. One evening she walks into a private club and hires a peroxide blonde whom she decides to name Nathalie (Emmanuelle Béart) to seduce her husband.
At first we understand Catherine is testing Bernard’s fidelity. We see the women meet in various locations in their Paris neighbourhood (cafes, a hotel room, her surgery and the club) where Catherine receives an update about Nathalie’s sexual interaction with Bernard. Nathalie’s descriptions are detailed: meticulously sequential and erotic.
We get the impression Nathalie enjoys re-telling her encounters with Bernard more than the reality. If indeed, the encounters actually happened. It is during Nathalie’s narrations that director Anne Fontaine takes us to a place less ordinary than a wife testing her husband. Catherine is fascinated by what Nathalie says turns on her husband. Ardant plays Catherine with eyes as deep and burning as a dormant volcano. Fontaine then goes further: gradually Nathalie opens up Catherine, and it is apparent she is more compelled by Nathalie’s sexual allure, than its effect on her husband.
Nathalie is playing a game; she remains an enigma. We learn that she works in a make-up emporium during the day and likes to ice-skate. By contrast, Fontaine chooses to show small details in Catherine’s domestic life. Nathalie has an ‘otherness’ which at times is frustrating. We want to know more about her, but instead remain like Catherine, an observer.
Fontaine (complicated, unconventional women are her domain: Perfect Mother, Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovery) directs Catherine and Nathalie’s interaction with smart restraint. The only physical affection we see between the two women is at the end, when they embrace (dignified, classic contact).
Power between Catherine and Nathalie interests Fontaine more than active sex: what the two women choose to reveal, to hide, and what they choose to twist. They both have an unspoken and non-physical need to dominate and submit. Fontaine makes this wholly believable. Ardour and solitude, erotic and moving, beautifully veil ordinary and complicated lives.
Director: Anne Fontaine (2004)