Jean Harvey, the wealthy owner of a Parisian newspaper, lives in splendor. He entertains lavishly, although as he points out in the narration during the opening scenes, his dinners are perhaps not as elaborate as those of the other wealthy people in their circle. We watch him as the story opens walking proudly throughout the streets of a smart quarter of the city thinking aloud for our benefit as a way of introduction.
The next time we see Jean is at one of his Thursday dinners in which a group of friends gather around his table to eat, talk and do what people in his circle do. It's at this moment that are introduced to Gabrielle, his lovely wife, an attractive woman who can hold her own at her parties because she commands attention from her friends whenever she speaks.
For all appearances, the Harveys are a happily married couple without a care in the world. Little prepares us for what awaits Jean Harvey as he goes home one day. Jean has told us how he and Gabrielle occupy just one room with twin beds, as they don't believe in separate accommodations. As he enters the bedroom, he sees an envelope addressed to him. Imagine his surprise as he opens it and finds out Gabrielle has left him for another man! Jean goes into a rage, perhaps because he had no hint of anything wrong with Gabrielle, who obviously, must have been planning leaving him for quite some time. In his state, he trashes a glass decanter and he cuts himself. Nothing seems to calm him from his state until, unexpectedly, we see a feminine figure clad in black ascending the stairs toward the bedroom. As the door opens, one can only see the blue gloves the woman is wearing. It's apparent Gabrielle has returned.
It's at this moment when the real fight begins between Jean and Gabrielle. The biggest shock for Jean is to know the name of the man who has charmed his wife into leaving him. Gabrielle feels she has made a horrible mistake, but she doesn't mince words in telling Jean what motivated her into going away. Jean is a cold man who never really understood his wife, as it seems always the case. To make matters worse, being a worldly man, he is more interested in what the friends in his circle will think about him, as it's obvious the servants will talk about them.
Patrice Chereau has created a film that surprises at first, and then, when all is said and done, makes us feel we've been had for the way the Harveys decide to settle their differences. Jean will never forgive Gabrielle, although at the end, one gets a hint that Gabrielle is willing to give Jean a part of herself she has kept away from him all along.
The film, based on a Joseph Conrad short story, "The Return", which we haven't read, gets a great staging by the director, who also co-wrote the screen play with Anne-Louise Thivudic. Mr. Chereau combines black and white photography in the early part of the film with color as the story develops. This is a film that makes us think about how some marriages, that appear to be happy, in reality are not so, as proved by the Harveys. Even though they are rich, have a great mansion, live comfortably, entertain friends, yet love eludes them, so Gabrielle has to go outside to feel wanted and needed.
The film consists of basically two characters, Jean and Gabrielle. Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert are magnificent in the way they bring these two characters to life. Both actors give performances of such depth, we are stunned by their range and how they interact with one another through the movie.
The film is helped by the wonderful cinematography of Eric Gautier who works with the dark colors in the film that compliment the mood of the couple at the center of the action. Also, the background music by Favio Bacchi plays well in the context of the film. Patrice Chereau has directed with his usual panache, and although he sometimes succeeds, we feel this couple should have never gotten married in the first place.
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