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  • 15
  • Drama, Romance
  • 2005
  • 90 mins




Patrice Chéreau adapts Joseph Conrad to depict a Belle Époque marriage both held together and torn apart by the claustrophobic conventions of the times. Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory star as the couple under pressure


Adultery and its effects on a marital relationship are hardly novel themes for cinema, French or otherwise, and as though in acknowledgement of this, Patrice Chéreau has chosen to explore such material not in a contemporary setting, but amidst the crusty propriety of the Belle Époque at the turn of the last century. Adapted from a short story by Joseph Conrad entitled 'The Return', Gabrielle depicts the disintegration of a marriage with all the voyeuristic scrutiny of a prying maidservant.

Jean and Gabrielle Hervey have been married for 10 years, and while their relationship is devoid of passion or progeny, they are a model couple within their affluent social milieu, and their Thursday soirées are habituated by an élite of artists, writers, musicians and politicians.

One afternoon, Jean (who also narrates) arrives home early to find a letter from Gabrielle announcing that she has left him for another man - but before he has recovered from the shock, she returns. Over the following day-and-a-half, Jean will struggle to understand why Gabrielle went away, why she came back, and what the future holds for their relationship. In all the confusion and anguish he will at last come to see both his wife's, and more importantly his own, conflicting desires, and will try in his own way to escape.

Although he has been making films since 1978 (Gabrielle is his ninth feature), Chéreau's background is in theatre and opera, and therein lies the greatest weakness of Gabrielle. With its setting confined largely to a single mansion, its heavy reliance on face-to-face dialogue for characterisation and exposition, and its rather staid mise-en-scène, Gabrielle always seems more like a stuffy chamber piece that happens to have a camera placed in front of it than a film in its own right. While its mannered intertitles - some contextual ("The Thursday before", "The next morning"), some more revelatory of the narrator's inner thoughts ("I'm not to be disturbed!", "You must help me, you always have", etc.) - may be the least theatrical feature of the film, even these smack more of the film's literary origins than of any genuine cinematic quality, unless of course one thinks of the silent cinema of the time in which the action of Gabrielle is set. These titles, much like the occasional transitions from monochrome to colour and back again, seem like little more than annoying distractions, and add nothing to the film's overall impact.

Not that Gabrielle is entirely lacking in pleasures. The set design and costumes (by Olivier Radot and Caroline De Vivaise respectively) are impeccable, making the Hervey's house seem at once a bourgeois haven and a chilly tomb, while the central performances by Huppert and Greggory are wonderfully nuanced portrayals of a couple locked in painful, terminal conflict. Particularly striking are the scenes in which they attempt (and largely fail) to conduct an intimate discussion of their necessarily private predicament even as an army of maids constantly bustles in and out of earshot - it is like a snapshot of the breakdown in communications that accompanies any marital crisis, only filtered through the lens of a particular time and society.

Much of the film's dialogue, however, seems clumsy and stilted, particularly in the scenes where Gabrielle confides in the maid Yvonne (Coli). These scenes were created to compensate for the cipher-like characterisation of Conrad's original unnamed model for Gabrielle, who barely uttered a line and remained an enigma throughout. Yet while Chéreau's Gabrielle talks a whole lot more, and occupies central stage with her bewildered husband (even lending the film its title), she hardly comes into clearer focus. Why does she come back? Certainly her return enables a series of dramatic confrontations, and affords all manner of neat ironies and paradoxes, but all this seems to be a convenience for the filmmaker rather than for Gabrielle herself, whose motives remain resolutely opaque to the end.

Chéreau may, in the manner of Henry James, Henrik Ibsen or August Strindberg, reveal the nature of a society by examining its limits, but ultimately Gabrielle, like its heroine and her bewildered husband, fails fully to escape its own conventionality.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Claudia Coli, Pascal Greggory, Chantal Neuwirth, Isabelle Huppert, Thierry Haneisse
  • Director: Patrice Chéreau
  • Screen Writer: Patrice Chéreau, Anne-Marie Trividic
  • Writer (Story): Joseph Conrad
  • Producer: Patrice Chéreau
  • Photographer: Eric Gautier
  • Composer: Fabio Vacchi

In a nutshell

A film that matches all too well the times it portrays, Gabrielle is claustrophobic, stifling, and not a little crusty. Saved only by its exquisitely bitter performances and immaculate design.

by Anton Bitel

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