Published August 1, 1998
It is not a particularly original or even, necessarily, interesting observation that marriage, like other symbiotic relationships, is often a matter of complementary pathologies. Or what would be pathologies if they were found in an individual. Benoit Jacquot (A Single Girl, The Disenchanted) has given us a portrait of such a marriage—and not much hope for the untroubled happiness of Mathilde (Sandrine Kiberlain) and Nico (Vincent Lindon)—in Le Ciel Septième or Seventh Heaven. Yet for him, the disappointment of the individual seems to have become the hope of the couple. Such hope as is possible anyway. It is a grown up, if a rather melancholy moral.
Mathilde, a prosperous Parisian lawyer and the mother of a young son, begins to behave strangely on arriving at the age of 29—the age her father was when he was killed in a car accident. She has a loving husband, a charming son and a full time nanny, Chloe (Florence Loiret), but she has fallen into a kind of lethargy, cannot go to work, has fainting spells and has begun to shoplift—always children’s toys. Nico, an orthopedic surgeon, doesn’t know what to do to help her. One night at a party, she makes eye contact with an older man (François Berleand). Shortly afterward, she faints again. Nico writes her a prescription and tells her to stay in bed.
The next day she sees the older man again in the street and follows him. Losing sight of him in a toystore, she does what has now become customary and puts a toy in her coat pocket. She feels a peremptory hand grasp her elbow and instantly faints. When she comes to, she is being spoken to by the older man she had followed. At this time she doesn’t know, and nor do we, if he is a detective or a policeman or a store employee. But he takes her to lunch, tells her how to rearrange her apartment in accordance with the doctrine of feng shui and hypnotizes her. On this and subsequent occasions, he breaks through to unconscious memories of the trauma of her father’s death and encourages her to discuss with her mother the long-forgotten suspicion, still vehemently denied by the latter, that it was a suicide.
Mathilde begins to get better, happier. With the apartment rearranged, she is even able to have orgasms, as she could not before. She begins going into work again. Then Nico, her husband, starts acting strangely. He finds that he cannot respond to Mathilde’s new interest in sex and in himself and begins acting defensively, even violently. “I’m scared,” he admits in a moment of candor. Her health, he tells a psychiatrist friend, is crippling me. As an orthopedic surgeon, he spends his life straightening other people out. “She walks straight without your help,” says the doctor; “that makes you limp.” Eventually, Nico too consults a hypnotist, but he is too tense and reluctant to allow himself to be put under.
Instead, he becomes jealous, convinced that Mathilde is having an affair with the mysterious hypnotist. Mathilde doesn’t help when she tells him that the relationship was purely therapeutic. “I bumped into a man with ears.”
“Bumped?” says Nico. “Humped, more like.”
There is another nasty scene between them and then the only possible ending as Mathilde, unprompted, promises him: “I’ll put everything back the way it was.”
“My love,” he says.