Beneath Patrice Chereau’s portrait of a decadent group of early 20th Century Parisian socialites lies a terrible secret: a disintegrating marriage. Adapted from Joseph Conrad’s short story, The Return, Chereau’s Gabrielle is his most visually stylised piece of film-making yet and one that shines a glaring torchlight directly onto the complex mechanics of human survival.
Gabrielle takes place over little more than a week. A high society Parisian set amuse themselves every Thursday, under the instruction of a refined couple, the Herveys, with petty philosophies over crystal cut goblets. The Herveys, on the surface, exude delirious marital bliss. Through airs and graces they give the impression that their relationship is one driven by passion, commitment and love. But, behind closed doors, a very different story is unfolding. And Chereau allows us to bear witness.
The film opens with Jean (played with remarkable honesty by Pascal Greggory) in a smart hat and tails meandering through a crowd on a busy train platform in Paris. Jean’s voice narrates over the action of the velvety black and white scene. He speaks of his love for Gabrielle and his successful ten year marriage to her, but not too soon after this encounter the action cuts, and we are catapulted headlong into a lavish banquet scene at the Hervey’s abode. Across the feast laden table, the eyes of the couple meet, and from this moment on the first glimpse of their breakdown is revealed.
The part of Gabrielle could have been written especially for French icon Isabelle Huppert (The Piano Teacher / Ma Mere). Over her illustrious career Huppert has never shied away from a challenge and admits to embracing characters that represent a more repressed and darker side of human nature. Gabrielle’s passivity, coupled with a staunch intelligence and innate strength, makes her on the one hand intimidating, but on the other, when recognised as purely a faade, hopelessly vulnerable. It is a perfect role for France’s finest contemporary actress. This is Gabrielle’s story. It is her awakening from a life of acceptance, one not driven by passion, but appearances and social necessity. Here we meet her in a new state, one she herself does not recognise. Gabrielle has had an affair with another man, and through a written letter, leaves her husband. The only thing is, a matter of hours later, she returns.
Gabrielle was awarded two Cesars for Best Costume and Best Set Design, and it is of no surprise, for the film is a visual masterpiece. Deep dark mahogany browns and musty burgundy reds complimented with playful lighting from overhanging chandeliers decorate the scene. These moments of colour are juxtaposed with a wash of black and white episodes that at first appear to have some hidden meaning. However after sometime you begin to realise that it is the director’s intention to use the film as his own unique palette, one he wants to indulge in and have fun with, and is refreshingly not asking the viewer to construct connotations or explanations to the decisions he makes. On occasion cuts are made to a black screen with text describing action that has just taken place or what is to come. This is reminiscent of old silent films and gives the film the feeling of a graphic novel drenched in antiquity.
Chereau was drawn to Conrad’s story from a single line Gabrielle speaks:
“Had I known you loved me I’d never have come back”.
This lays the foundation for the entire film. Jean is a lost soul who believes he deeply loves his wife, though they have never shared a marital bed, and he is more concerned that the servants and his guests know nothing about her betrayal for fear of how he will be perceived. Gabrielle however returns to her husband for she can survive only in a loveless place, anything more than that is just too dangerous. Chereau presents us therefore with a world where people know nothing about one another. A place where people fall to the ‘mercy’ of miscommunication, hiding themselves behind their vulnerabilities and so repressing themselves further into their own obscurity.
Gabrielle is a complex study on the nature of relationships and survival, and, though it loses its pace at times and felt a little drawn out, Chereau has created an artistic triumph.