REVIEW: Béatrice Dalle Plays an Alcoholic Mathematician Sexpot in Domain — So What Are You Waiting For?

Movieline Score: 8

It’s hard to say whether Patric Chiha’s unabashedly out-there drama Domain is actually good or whether it simply nuzzles very cozily against the shoulder of so-bad-it’s-good. After seeing the movie twice, I’m inclined to say Domain splits the difference -- Chiha knows when the story is wobbling off the rails of credibility and leans into the turn, embracing the narrative’s full-on nuttiness. And face it: You don’t cast Béatrice Dalle as a middle-aged (but sensuous as heck) alcoholic mathematician unless you mean business. No wonder John Waters named Domain his number-one movie of 2010.

Now viewers Stateside can bask in the picture’s bonkers glory, but be forewarned: The demented pleasures of Domain are slow-burning ones. As Waters aptly put it in Art Forum, this is a movie where the two main characters form a “perversely close” relationship by taking walks – “Lots of walks! So many walks you’ll be left breathless by the sheer elegance of this astonishing little workout.” You may also wobble out feeling more than a little pickled: Dalle plays Nadia, a brilliant but sozzled thinker who’s idolized by her teenaged nephew, Pierre (Isaïe Sultan). It seems Pierre is still trying to figure out his sexuality (though when he decisively chooses the dress Nadia should wear to dinner one evening, it’s pretty clear which team he’s leaning toward). Mostly, though, he’s captivated by his aunt, sneaking away from his disapproving mother, Nadia’s sister, to spend time with her. And why wouldn’t he? When the two step into a café for a glass of wine, Nadia gulps most of hers before loudly berating the waiter, the corners of her mouth turned down in a task-mistress’ pout. “This white wine is undrinkable. How dare you serve it,” she observes dryly as she spills the remaining contents of the glass over the table, letting it dribble onto her high-heeled shoe.

But mostly, Pierre and Nadia do walk, Nadia spinning out webs of cracked wisdom with every step. Noticing an elderly couple in the park, their strides out of step, she remarks, “People don’t know how to walk; they have no rhythm.” Later, seeing a jumble of kids playing happily, she sneers, “How can children stand being with so many other children?”

Nadia has had myriad lovers and interesting friends in her life (it appears that most of the latter, and perhaps some of the former, have been gay), and Pierre is curious about them all. Why, he wants to know, did she break up with the one named Walter, who appears to have been one of her favorites? “Probably because I couldn’t stay with one person forever – especially an Austrian physicist.” Her reasoning is silly until you ask yourself – would you want to be saddled for life with an Austrian physicist, especially if you were a gap-toothed babe with a brain made for the French equivalent of MIT (whatever that is) and a body made for sin? I thought not.

The relationship between Pierre and Nadia becomes increasingly tangled: Pierre pulls away from her slightly, dallying with adorable boys he meets on public transportation and otherwise recognizing that his auntie may be just a wee bit unstable. Nadia becomes more withdrawn, though it’s hard to say if she actually starts drinking more. (She simply drinks a lot, to the point that her doctor tells her she’ll die if she doesn’t stop immediately.) Later, a very different sort of Austrian turns up in a slinky red turtleneck dress, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Chiha also wrote the script for Domain, and while some of the dialogue comes off as pure wack-a-doodle, it’s never laughable enough to throw you out of the picture. In fact, Domain is compelling precisely because of its lack of embarrassment. As Pierre, Sultan deftly walks the line between boyish innocence and erotic sophistication: He’s sweet, but there’s a pheromone-cloud of mystery hanging about him, too. And Dalle is just made for these loony-sexpot roles (never, until the day I die, will I forget the image of her driving those sled dogs at the end of Claire Denis’s inscrutable, incomparable L’Intrus). She doesn’t disappoint here: Her Nadia is voracious, an appetite walking around on two impossibly long stems. Her mouth, bulbous like some sort of brilliant, fleshy undersea creature, looks hungry for everything. But we never see Nadia making love, or even seeming to want love. Instead, she delights in making workaday aphorisms sound sensual: “Mathematics are a way of organizing the world.” “Without mathematics, I’d be a liquid without a container.”

Domain is a strange little picture, florid, probing, passionate in its very nuttiness. But Waters wasn’t overreaching in his use of the word “elegant.” Mathematics may, as Nadia believes, be a way of organizing the world. But numbers have their own unspoken allure, above and beyond their inherent usefulness. Domain has the austerity of a gleaming mathematical equation, yet it’s deeply in touch with the mystery of human fragility – as if a life could be swept away by brushing too carelessly against the chalkboard. It’s a movie about the Venn-diagram center between wanting too much and wanting nothing.

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