In turn of the century Paris, Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory, "La Vie promise, "Son frère") is a man of means whose Thursday night soirees are the choice of many of the chic set. He believes he is living a charmed and happy life until he comes home one afternoon to find a farewell letter from his unfaithful wife, "Gabrielle."
Director Patrice Chéreau ("Intimacy," "Son frère"), who with cowriter Anne-Louise Trividic ("Intimacy," "Son frère") has adapted the Joseph Conrad novel "The Return," dissects a marriage in two parts, first presenting it from the contented eyes of Jean before thrusting it into a dark and mysterious place when Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert, "La Vie promise," "I Heart Huckabees") unexpectedly returns home soon after her husband has read her letter.
Chéreau opens with a sea of bowler hats and workers' caps on a train platform. Hervey is picked from the bunch as he reflects on his happy life, although he notes that his wife doesn't get much chance to 'play' her intellect. This reverie is filmed in black and white, a device used for interior reflection (note that although the scene is in color and two characters are in conversation, the self searching which takes place between Gabrielle and her maid Yvonne takes place within a black and white bathroom).
A beautifully set table is displayed in glorious color, then peopled with dinner guests enchanted by Gabrielle's wit (she certainly can and does play that intellect), tweaking her husband's newspaper editor for containing some many emotions in one body. A guest proffers Rimbaud's reflection that no one can really know another, but Gabrielle declares she doesn't need to, she only needs her husband's companionship.
Another reverie from Jean has him recalling meeting his wife, declaring her to be his most prized 'possession' (his words accompanied by a shot of the white marble statues in their foyer), but then his reverie is shattered. He spies the letter and begins to approach it. The camera zooms in on it, then again, then cuts away for a third approach. It's words are magnified over the screen. Gabrielle has left him for another man.
But is Jean the innocent victim here? Gabrielle returns, downcast, saying she has made a mistake. Jean vents his anger, then offers forgiveness, which she responds to with laughter. Their struggle continues all evening, through a late dinner, and it is as if they are fighting over the one shared life force between them. He speaks of her veins, her paleness, how he loves the blush on her neck but hates the color tears bring to her face. She talks about how she wanted 'to flow into him like blood' when revealing her first sexual tryst with her lover, the editor Jean feels is 'oily and vengeful.' He barely touches dinner, gesturing for the servants to clear things away while Gabrielle clutches her plate, then continues with hearty appetite.
Their ugly confrontation plays out in front of servants and continues to be public when the following evening, a Thursday, finds their house once more filled with guests. A grandly morbid piano recital (by opera singer Raina Kabaivanska) is an appropriate piece of entertainment, as surely must be the marital discord on display for all to see.
Chéreau's period chamber drama is engrossing throughout and an interesting accompaniment to his modern day "Intimacy." That film, with its explicit sexual scenes, focused on the affair and kept the dialogue between the couples to a minimum (there was more actual talk between the two men). "Gabrielle," although surprisingly sexual for a period piece, puts the dialogue in the forefront, gradually twisting our sympathies as the characters reveal themselves. Both films feature edgy music, with Fabio Vacchi providing "Gabrielle" an experimental modern classical score. And, in the end, both films suffer slightly from their inability to truly get into the minds of their female protagonists.
The great Huppert, though, whose final move is mysterious, if effective, is a joy to watch here and she and Greggory ably define one of those surface marriages that suit individual needs if not a couple's. Claudia Coli is a terrific new presence as Gabrielle's maid Yvonne and the two women's work together provides the film's best scene.
Jean Hervey (Pascal Gregory) is the epitome of the late-19th century bourgeois Parisian businessman. Rich, smug and living the perfect life with his beautiful wife (Isabelle Hupert), he is stunned when, the day after they host a lavish dinner party, he receives a Dear Jean letter from her stating that she is leaving him for another man. Only hours later, though, she returns. But, thing will never be the way they once were with “Gabrielle.”
Director Patrice Chereau, with Anne-Louise Trividic, adapts Joseph Conrad’s novella, The Return, in a two-person play about one man’s misperception of what his life really is. Pascal Gregory is top-notch as a man who has it all only to find out that his most prized possession, Gabrielle, is not his at all. He is totally distraught when he reads her farewell letter and even more so when she returns. His once secure life falls into a morass of confusion as she declares that she holds no love for him any more. The remainder of the film has Jean trying to make things right again as he realizes that he needs Gabrielle’s love to exist.
Chereau and his stars create a film that is heavy on talk – lots of talk – that may be hard going for someone waiting for something to happen. But, the strong performances by Hupert and Greggory delve into the minds of their characters and we see both change dramatically from their introduction. Add to this the dynamic of Gabrielle confiding in her maid, Yvonne (Claudia Coli), helping to turn the all female household staff against their master. There is a constant air of underlying tension as Jean tries to make things the way they were but can’t.
Gabrielle” is art house fare and will appeal to the femme film buff but unlikely so for a wider demographic. Fortunately, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts includes it as the opening night film for its French Film Festival and it may garner some good attention there. I give it B-.
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