Patrice Chéreau is one of the giants of entertainment, whether in his direction of operas (his Wagner RING remains a gold standard), plays, or his films. He is a thoroughgoing artist, one who combines great intellect with a keen ear for music, camera movement, atmosphere, the spoken and unspoken word, and for accompanying some of the finest actors at work today in their realization of his visions.
GABRIELLE is a case in point and for this viewer this is simply one of the strongest films to come out of France - a country much celebrated for its cinematic genius - in many years. Inspired by Joseph Conrad's short story 'The Return' and adapted as a screenplay by Anne-Louise Trividic and Chéreau, the story is a brief history of a married couple whose ten-year marriage alters in one afternoon and evening - the time span of the film.
Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory) is a handsome man of wealth who 'acquired' a wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert) ten years ago. They live in a mausoleum of magnificent art and base their existence on the glamorous parties attended by the artists and patrons of the arts in turn of the century Paris. Jean's 'acquisition' of Gabrielle included the understanding that they would have no intimacy: they do sleep in the same bedroom but in separate beds. Their marriage seems perfect - but it is hollow. Rather abruptly Gabrielle leaves a note on the dresser addressed to Jean, a note that states she has left him for a man: her need for sexual gratification has risen to the breaking point. Jean is devastated, but as he nurses his broken glass-injured hand Gabrielle returns: she could not go through with ending the marriage of convenience. The two have extended verbal exchanges and physical abuse but it is only to the servants that Gabrielle shares her true feelings. She decides to structure her marriage to Jean by submitting to him sexually, a status that is novel to their marriage, and it is this role reversal of the masculine/feminine state that sends Jean panicked into the night.
Chéreau uses many techniques to render this story about intimacy (or the lack thereof) that strongly support the power of the film: sections are in black and white representing the way things appear and are structured to the planned observation; Raina Kabaivanska plays and sings at a soirée (she is an actual opera star); Jean's staff of servants is only women instead of the usual mix of men and women; the musical score by the brilliant Italian contemporary composer Fabio Vacchi is used as a 'character' instead of background support; and the camera work by cinematographer Eric Gautier uses a full cinemascope camera set up to add weight to the project.
But none of these subtleties would have worked so perfectly without the brilliance of acting of Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory. They find the core of these strange characters and allow us to understand the rather warped psyches of the pair. It is a feat of genius. As an added DVD feature there is an extended conversation with Chéreau, Huppert and Greggory about the film from the initial idea to the finished product and hearing these three brilliant artists share their insights is for once extremely additive to the film. This rather dark and brooding film may be a bit too static for some, but for lovers of cinematic art it is a complete triumph to experience. Grady Harp
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