|Pascal Greggory||Jean Hervey|
|Directed by||Patrice Ch?reau|
Smug and self-satisfied, Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) has a life that pleases him: good looks, a good tailor, plenty of money, a well-chosen and carefully expanding circle of friends, a mansion filled with fine art and fine servants, and a beautiful and elegant wife, Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert), who is the ultimate accessory to his enviable existence. ?I love her as a collector does his most prized item,? he reflects as he walks home from the railway station through the streets of 1912 Paris to his seat of all that is good.
His shell of complacency is soon shattered. He is informed by the maid that Madame is out. He goes up to his dressing room, and as he is pouring himself a drink he sees an envelope propped on his dressing table, addressed to him in his wife?s hand. Inside are words on paper that turn his world upside down. She has left him.
Gabrielle is an adaptation by writer/director Patrice Ch?reau (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train) of an intense short story by Joseph Conrad called The Return. Conrad?s densely-packed prose is rendered in the beginning via voice-over from Jean, as he contemplates the satisfactoriness of his life, and then as he reels under the devastating impact of Gabrielle?s departure.
And then she comes back.
Jean is flabbergasted. He doesn?t know how to react. She is not tearful, not apologetic. She has changed her mind. Jean prowls the room, berating her, upbraiding her, grilling her like an examining magistrate. How could she do this to him? What will people think? To treat him so, when he has always loved her!
?If I had thought for a moment that you loved me,? she says, ?I would not have come back.?
Through these early scenes, which make up the first half hour of the movie, the story closely follows Conrad in sticking primarily to Jean?s point of view. But now Ch?reau and his screenwriting collaborator, Anne-Louise Trividic, swing into new territory, exploring Gabrielle?s thoughts and emotions, and justifying the title change.
Gabrielle is cool on the outside, tormented on the inside. She is tormented by the missed opportunities of her life, the compromises she has allowed, the future she has accepted by her return. Under Jean?s cross-examination, she sits impassively, only rarely rising to an outburst of her own. Ironically, her impassivity is one of the characteristics for which Jean had expressed particular admiration in his contented reflection during his stroll home. Now it needles him, baffles him, and drives him to mood swings that range from condescension to outrage to despair. It is only when he elects to forgive her, and she bursts into uncontrolled laughter, that he begins to realize how thoroughly she is lost to him.
It is the losing that he minds, the losing that ignites the fires of urgent love that he expresses to her now that it?s too late. It?s a familiar enough pattern, and one that is hardly gender-specific, this sudden explosion of emotion that comes from the loss of a person one has take for granted. The sexual passion and emotional tenderness seems to have gone out of their relationship sometime in the first year of Jean and Gabrielle?s ten-year union, and since then they have each created their own separate versions of a satisfactory marriage. For Jean it?s been fulfilling: she?s the perfect hostess, she runs the household and manages the staff, and she complements his position as a successful businessman and patron of the arts. For Gabrielle, it?s been a wasteland the dimensions of which she has not understood until, unexpectedly, she makes an emotional connection with another man.
Gabrielle is past the first flush of youth. She must have been in her thirties when they were married, and now, under the sometimes merciless glare of Eric Gautier?s lighting, she is beginning to look haggard. She feels she has reached a point where she must either embrace a last opportunity for emotional fulfillment, or commit to life without it. By coming back after she has left the note of goodbye, she is casting her lot with form over feeling. ?When you don?t matter,? she says, ?you can come and go.?
Everything about this production is outstanding. Greggory and Huppert strip away layer after layer, revealing complexity of character with a mesmerizing range of expression. The production design by Olivier Radot conjures the elegant formality of Belle Epoque Paris, and Fabio Vacchi?s stirring score frays the nerves and focuses the energy. The screenplay by Ch?reau and Trividic expands on the Conrad story without violating it.
Ch?reau has a background in theater, and there is a quality here of a drawing room theater piece, physically contained and emotionally tempestuous. It?s about men and women, about the ways we respond to tenderness and neglect, about our attitudes toward romance, about humiliation and self-awareness, about the things we want and the things we need, about our abilities to accommodate and endure.
© Text 2006 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be