What if Hitchcock’s ticking time bomb, but infidelity?
… ok, that’s not even accurate. In Hitchcock’s suspense / thriller scenario, the conversation is happening despite the bomb under the table – and the tension is the audience’s alone, as “you’ve given them that information.” Nathalie… flips that table: half the conversations are about the bomb, and the only information the audience is given is through those conversations.
Catherine (the meticulously understated Fanny Ardant) suspects her businessman husband Bernard (Gérard Depardieu) of being unfaithful, and hires a prostitute (the impossibly sexy Emmanuelle Béart) to seduce him and report back to her. Catherine and Nathalie meet after each of Nathalie’s trysts with Bernard, often in the very bar or hotel room where it happened, and Catherine probes Nathalie for her detailed, mechanical account of every action, every touch, every word of pillow talk, she has just shared with Catherine’s husband. We only “see” the affair through Nathalie’s accounts and, like Catherine, we rely on every word to paint the picture. Let us describe to you the time bomb we have placed under the table.
Nathalie… is “Tell, Don’t Show” – and it is riveting.
Contrasting these are Catherine’s scenes with her husband Bernard: she never confronts him, instead waiting for him to confess. Their conversations are so banal: Bernard sticks to his story about having meetings and appointments; Catherine’s exquisite poise never falters, her fury and heartbreak barely trouble the surface of her unwavering veneer. The time bomb is under the table.
Nathalie… presents a stunning inversion. When read purely through its mise en scene, the sexual relationship is between the two women, and the professional relationship is between the husband and wife. All of Catherine’s scenes with Nathalie take place in the venues where illicit affairs happen, while all of Catherine’s scenes with Bernard are in the spaces where they live and work. The conversations between Catherine and Nathalie are explicitly sexual, while Catherine and Bernard’s are definitively chaste. As her experiment descends into psychological kamikaze, Catherine visits Nathalie in the very brothel where she works, and meets Bernard in the bar where Nathalie first made contact with him – bringing herself, and us, closer to the scene of infidelity we never actually see, and the scene Catherine is yet to make. The time bomb is Catherine’s mind.
In better horror films, the most frightening moments are the ones we aren’t shown. In Nathalie…, the frightening moments are sex scenes, and the horror is infidelity. The actors’ performances are elevated from engaging to riveting, via Anne Fontaine‘s painterly direction and Jean-Marc Fabre‘s alternately vivid and subdued colour and cinematography, because of what we are explicitly told and are explicitly not shown.