Movie Review
Gabrielle
2005
Director: Patrice Chéreau
Cast: Isabelle Huppert, Pascal Greggory
A-


a man returns home from work early to meet his wife, finding in her place an ominous note. Without reading the contents, we already infer its purpose, but just to be sure, we glimpse fragments of it that divulge the woman’s sordid affair and how she has presently absconded into the arms of another lover. The man collapses to the floor; the piercing effect of the note enervating from him the aristocratic pride and composure he so cherishes. Then, mysteriously, the woman returns, hoping to intercept the note before her husband has a chance to read it. What ensues is a scorching melodrama of marital collapse as the film crafts a tale of claustrophobic acrimony.

Let it be said that the first fifteen minutes of Patrice Chéreau’s Gabrielle may well stand as the finest captured on film this year. As the camera moves fluidly through a party thrown by the feuding couple, comprised of petty bourgeois blowhards, it recalls the confident maneuverings of Fellini’s best sequences. Relegating the dialogue to a nearly inconsequential position, the main focus lies in the way the camera encapsulates a dizzying array of conversations and movements while simultaneously expressing a certain whimsy and confidence with its perfectly choreographed encounters. But Fellini isn’t the only master noted in this majestic work. Chéreau channels, among others, Godard and Truffaut before settling into a lengthy evocation of Bergman’s chamber dramas of the early ‘60s. If the film falters a bit following its blistering first act, that’s to be expected as maintaining such a fevered pitch would prove nothing short of miraculous.

As many critics have observed, the film could function soundly as a two-character dramatic play; not surprising since Chéreau possesses a firm background in theater. However, offering up such a perspective as a criticism of the film’s cinematic relevance would require one to overlook the tremendous style Chéreau applies to it. Not all of his techniques work as effectively as others, but he employs enough of them to hit more than a few high notes throughout the film’s taught 90-minute runtime.

More than anything, the plot provides the fundamental framework to serve as a jumping- off point for Chéreau’s technique. Based on a short story by Joseph Conrad called The Return, the film tells a conventional story of matrimonial disintegration amid the backdrop of late 19th Century Paris. In a more traditional film, it would suffer from an agonizingly garrulous voice-over narration and an dearth of dynamic pacing, but here it jumps from the screen with vitality, due in part to the manner in which Chéreau frames it.


Assisting Chéreau’s masterful direction is the superb acting of its two leads. Pascall Greggory turns in an extraordinary performance as Jean Hervey, the cuckolded husband of Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert in a characteristically impassive yet brilliant role). He represents a man possessed by status and pride. His weekly parties are a testament to his own vanity, with Gabrielle acting as yet another fixture to be admired by his friends. When the breakdown inevitably occurs, Jean seems less concerned with winning back her love as he is with salvaging his dignity in the eyes of his contemporaries. Yet Chéreau doesn’t necessarily exonerate Gabrielle either. Without giving away too much, her stoic nature may extend beyond a mere front applied at parties among people she’s forced to entertain, but rather serves as a disease that permeates throughout her being, driving deep into the recesses of her soul.

Chéreau aggressively confronts all these savage emotions with a seemingly endless supply of visual techniques—alternating between color and black and white, freezing the image, employing steady and handheld cameras, and flashing text across the screen—but uses them with such restraint so as not to allow his film to wander over toward decadent territory. His use of text, in particular, arouses the most awe from the viewer. In fact, not since Godard’s heyday has text been used so effectively as it has here. Chéreau fills in those empty gaps in which a character wants to speak, but either cannot articulate his or her thoughts or instead attempts to convey them through body language. It’s a rather bizarre yet spellbinding technique that I grudgingly concede some will find more grating than brilliant.

In fact, despite my unanimous praise of the film, I can easily grasp how one could construct a convincing case in favor of the extreme opposite viewpoint—deriding it as the very worst film of the year even. I apologize if that comes across as muddled, but I’m afraid that’s the kind of film we’re dealing with here. What I find insightful and poetic, others might view as pompous or contrived. So, rather than harangue you further on why this film deserves your respect, all I can say is that it’s something of an acquired taste. If you enjoy the more austere films of Ingmar Bergman, or the period pieces of Visconti, then perhaps Gabrielle will grip you as it did me. If, on the other hand, you find talkative, acerbic dramas with artsy flourishes boring, this may not be for you. Not that I can hold that against you. Then again, I believe it was Andy Warhol who once said that there are no boring films; only boring people.

Gabrielle is currently playing in limited release.


By: Dave Micevic
Published on: 2006-09-20
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