Based on "The Return" by Joseph Conrad, "Gabrielle" tells the story of a woman in turn-of-the-century Paris who rebels against a loveless marriage.
Jean Hervey is a successful newspaper publisher whose life is ruled far more by social obligation and ritual than by emotion or passion. He extends this philosophy to all areas of his life, even to his own wife, whom he sees less as a person with a basic human need for intimacy and passion than as an attractive ornament to be placed beside all the other artwork in his impressive collection of Greek statuary. He even proclaims rather proudly - as if it were evidence of his imperviousness to the weakness of the flesh - that, though he and his wife do share the same bedroom, they sleep in different beds. Yet, he is not above deluding himself into believing that he actually loves her, although he is the first to admit that real love requires far too much effort to really be worth his time. He takes pride in her "placid" nature, which he feels serves him well in her function as hostess for the dinner parties he throws for his friends like clockwork every Thursday night. One day, however, Jean's studiously ordered world is shattered when he finds a note from Gabrielle informing him that she has run off with another man. A few moments later, though, Gabrielle mysteriously returns home, having been unable to make that final break for reasons not entirely fathomable either to herself or to us. The remainder of the film is spent examining the couple's efforts to cope with the situation.
This theme - of an aristocratic, free-spirited woman trapped in a figurative gilded cage by either the man in her life or society as a whole - was not exactly a novel one even at the time the story was written, but what separates "Gabrielle" from similar works is its unique concentration on the man instead of the woman, on HIS repression and inadequacies rather than hers. This leads to a conclusion rich in irony as Jean, the passionless purveyor of propriety, becomes ever more eaten up by his own jealousies and obsessions. Jean reveals much of what he's thinking through voice-over narration, as Gabrielle serves as a catalyst for his own emotional revolution.
If "Gabrielle" reminds us of anything, it is of a film by Ingmar Bergman, one in which the characters talk out the minutiae of their relationships and their innermost feelings and thoughts at almost agonizing length - tedious to some in the audience, perhaps, but fascinating to others. Patrice Chereau and Anne-Louise Trividic's literate screenplay plumbs the depths of the two souls involved, while Chereau's direction keeps things moving by employing a camera that sweeps with almost reckless abandon through the dusky rooms and crowded salons where the action takes place.
Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory are perfectly cast foils as the husband and wife for whom "love" is no longer a viable option. Each of the actors seethes with an intensity that reveals the passions that have long lain dormant under the couple's placid exteriors.
Although Gabrielle may be the first of the two to throw off the cloak of respectability and go for what really matters, it is Jean's intense struggle with his own inner demons that commands most of our attention. For despite the title being "Gabrielle," the film turns out to be much more Jean's story in the end than hers.
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