Most recently known for her roles in Claire Denis’s Trouble Every Day and The Intruder as, respectively, a feral cannibal and the Queen of the Northern Hemisphere (how’s that for range?), Béatrice Dalle can come off as such a crazy/sexy/cool presence (those eyes! That gap!) that one can easily forget the actress at work beneath the defiantly carnal exterior. Patric Chiha sees both, and uses them to quietly heartrending effect in Domain, a film shaped by the divide between appearance and reality—or, more to the point, perceived order and underlying chaos.
This recognition of emotional disarray beneath chic exteriors occurs slowly within Domain, metered out in Chiha’s pensive images of fog-shrouded clubs and autumnal city parks under cloudy skies. When we first lay eyes on Nadia (Dalle), she’s refilling the champagne glasses of her academic and art-world friends as they lounge around a beach bonfire. Worldly and elegant, Nadia proves a logical fairy godmother for Pierre (Isaïe Sultan), her gay 17-year-old nephew, who sits on the edge of the group but gazes on with hungry eyes. There’s a hint of Olivier Assayas in this scene (something to do with how attuned Chiha is to the emotional and conversational cross-currents of his ever-so-bohemian collective) and it elegantly sets up the casually rebellious world that so fervently draws Pierre to Nadia.
Domain subtly toys with our expectations throughout its opening sequences, playing upon memories of other films that cast aging nonconformists as hip mentors to their doe-eyed queer charges. Their frequent walks through a Boudreaux park establish an unforced rapport between Nadia and Pierre, while Pierre’s fashion consultations with Nadia and trips to cafes and gay clubs underline her “cool aunt” status. Though Chiha’s camera remains studiously objective, we can’t help but see Nadia through Pierre’s star-struck eyes, and Dalle sashays through these scenes with stiletto-clicking authority and a touch of world-weary grace.
It’s all the more jarring, then, when Pierre’s mother mentions talk of rehab for Nadia, whose initially appears to confine herself to a mid-afternoon glass of white wine or a club cocktail. As the weeks progress, however, Nadia’s drinking becomes increasingly noticeable and debilitating. (A pointed long take finds Pierre trying to find someone to give him and Nadia a lift home, at one point seeming to step in front of his incapacitated aunt so as to not repel potential help.) As Nadia slips into alcoholism, Pierre begins to find his footing in the adult world. He begins a sweetly randy fling with a 26-year-old pick-up on the bus (a development that piques Nadia’s jealousy) and comes to view his unstable aunt with a mixture of pity and resentment. The ultimate drama of Domain becomes how long he can be a witness to her self-destruction.
A mathematician by trade, Nadia gives an early speech about the structuring power of her chosen subject as a way out life’s inherent disorder. Chiha gives Domain’s first act an appropriately precise construction, assiduously demarcating temporal gaps (one month later; two days later) and structuring Nadia and Pierre’s repeated afternoon strolls with similar camera setups. Yet the intertitles are layered over an image of churning water, an early sign of approaching disharmony. These techniques work hand in hand with an intriguingly opaque narrative. It takes a good 20 minutes to discern the exact nature of Nadia and Pierre’s relationship, and this uncertainty allows us to readily consider its more-disconcerting resonances. (The vaguely incestuous nature of this aunt-nephew connection is not lost on Chiha, even if he doesn’t explicitly push the film into forbidden territory.) Once that relationship begins to sputter and spin out of control, Chiha’s narrative grows less strictly patterned, but his camera continues to keep us at a remove, its contemplative gaze shifting from a reflection of Nadia and Pierre’s bond to a counterpoint to its increasing instability. Many of these images achieve a tantalizing richness in terms of atmosphere and suggestion; you can practically float around in a slightly slow-mo excursion on a steamy discotheque dance floor. Yet these same images withhold precise psychological positioning even as they offer vibrant visual textures. We continue to scan faces and bodies, looking for clues as to how Nadia and Pierre’s ever-fluctuating feelings toward one another shift in a given moment.
Domain retains this essential allusiveness especially in its treatment of Nadia. Even when confronted with the booze-fueled depths of her despair, outlined with devastating clarity by Dalle in a late-film monologue that both echoes and dismisses her earlier mathematical musings, we see her through Pierre’s now-disillusioned eyes, wondering how someone so seemingly vivacious became so hollowed-out by life. Chiha’s careful repetitions pay off in their final walk together. Once his guide to a new life, Nadia becomes both captor and albatross to Pierre, stumbling along winding paths to an inevitable final destination.