Albeit a disappointment after the tricksy psychodynamics of her last outing, ‘How I Killed My Father’, writer-director Anne Fontaine’s latest provides just as provocatively askance a view of French bourgeois mores and marriage. The marriage is that between elegant Parisienne gynaecologist Catherine (Fanny Ardant, in one of her most controlled and impressive roles in years) and the often absent Bernard (Gerard Dépardieu, exhibiting his now trademark lazy sufficiency), whom Catherine suspects of adultery. Employing prostitute Marlene (Emmanuelle Béart) to contact her husband, seduce him and report back, Catherine finds herself in a bizarre and complicated situation. As well as encouraging his further infidelity, she awakens her own sexuality and exercises new control by listening to Marlene and indulging in a perverse sexual relationship by proxy with her own husband. However, she also has to take on board the risk of the deception and the anxiety concerning Marlene’s own emotions and intentions.
This all sounds more intriguing on paper – I hope – than it proves to be on screen. Fontaine is evidently keen to avoid salaciousness, to the extent that she seems limited in her ability to enjoy the visual erotica offered by the film’s discreetly upmarket, modern brothels. Much activity is observed through glass, whereby the voyeuristic urge is acknowledged and coolly aestheticised; sex is reported speech. Béart’s performance is key; her dark horse begins to provide a dangerous frisson, but one begging a cumulatively more necessary twist. Remarkably, Fontaine’s keenly directed movie contrives to be simultaneously inscrutable and predictable.