A suggestive relationship between Pierre (Isaïe Sultan), a handsome teenage boy, and Nadia (Betty Blue’s Béatrice Dalle), his wild, older aunt, seems like a promising formula, but in the case of Domain, this set-up delivers little more than a few good performances.
Nadia moves with quick and restless precision, taking her frequent afternoon walks in heels and at a fast clip. She either falls into a brief, intense silence or bursts into sudden sermons on life, philosophy, and mathematics—anything weighty with its own importance. Rather than spend time with kids his own age, Pierre rings her door after school for their daily promenades. He’s mesmerized and hangs on her words in that very French style of quiet, expressionless acknowledgment. Nadia interprets this as insight, and the two become inseparable, falling into a strange relationship somewhere between friendship and attraction. She cuts a strong, self-processed figure in contrast to her sister, Pierre’s mother, whose brief appearance suggests a meek and ordinary woman. But Pierre also tends to Nadia like a child or eager servant, choosing her clothes, washing her feet—enjoying her brief moments of vulnerably.
As a mathematician, the beauty of order guides Nadia’s life, and its absence frightens her. But the rigidity she seeks in the world is belied by a personal life that is anything but stable. Her persistent drinking, at first limited to evenings, turns out to be destructive alcoholism, which Pierre comes to understand, then pity, then revile. Her musings begin to sound like drunken rants in the light of her uncontrollable and unattractive addiction, and Pierre pushes away, accepting the long ignored attention of his peers and embarking on a surprising, love affair with a man, which he neither trumpets nor conceals. However, his turn of heart from love to contempt for his beloved aunt is quick and exaggerated. It leads to a cruel and unexpected ending, which gives the film its first and last infusion of plot-driven drama, but it doesn’t feel warranted against the monotonous landscape of everything that came before it.
Dalle’s performance as Nadia is undoubtedly captivating, but the intensity of her glare often borders on malice in a way that seems unintentional. In fact, all the characters spend most of the film cloaked in such serious introspection that the absence of any lightness or nuance begins to feel heavy and dull.
There isn’t much more to the plot than the tides of this relationship, and as it fizzles, so does the film. Reflecting the theme of order and mathematics, Domain is divided into mini chapters with a shot of menacingly green, swirling water, and a note of how much time has passed. There is almost as little point to this gimmick as the incongruously pop soundtrack. For the most part, the music is a confused and unnecessary addition to the film that, aside from one momentarily entrancing cabaret number, may have worked better without music. The palate is dark and overcast, though this seemed more indicative of the low budget rather than carefully crafted mood, and the overall effect of watching Domain is unsatisfyingly depressive.