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Dark Victory: Patrice Chereau’s “Gabrielle”

Dark Victory: Patrice Chereau's "Gabrielle"

I anticipated a fairly fitful sleep after catching a late screening of “Gabrielle,” Patrice Chereau‘s adaptation of Joseph Conrad‘s short story “The Return.” Relationship dramas can rarely be described as spooky, but “Gabrielle,” like Conrad’s story, is a bona-fide creepshow, complete with scaremonger “jumps” of the horror variety. Sure enough, I was up at four in the morning, racked by Caligari-esque nightmares involving a skeletal figure in white belle-epoque couture, nastily brandishing a parasol and addressing me in the voice of the film’s narrator, Pascal Greggory. Losing sleep over a movie may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but I relish such occasions. If you ask me, any film that induces grisly fits of the subconscious is worth the price of admission–twofold.

At the beginning of the film, millionaire-everyman Jean walks home from the train and commends himself on the impressive normalcy of his money, his friends, and his ten-year marriage to Gabrielle, who he deeply appreciates as a worthy acquisition. He delights in her ability to charm a full table of literati at their Thursday-evening soirees with her unwavering nobility, and as he reaches his house, a bit early today, he concludes he is thoroughly pleased with the decent and dignified way of their life together.

Then he finds Gabrielle’s letter. He opens it, scans its contents, and immediately collapses on the floor. It seems she is leaving him for a slovenly poet, Jean’s least favorite guest from the roster of their weekly parties. As Jean grapples with the shock in his study, a black-veiled form ascends the staircase, half floating, half lurching, like the Grim Reaper. Gabrielle has returned, planning to destroy the letter, but she is minutes too late. The rest of the film, a terrifying and brilliant interpretation of Conrad’s text, is devoted to the ghastly aftermath. Gabrielle drives Jean wild with her silence as he gropes for control and for footing on solid moral ground, but he loses his composure again and again.

When Gabrielle does speak up, it’s in cryptic half-sentences and or cruel quips about the more sordid details of her affair. She offers none of the practical assurances Jean seeks so ardently, yet her nature is starkly honest. Her hatred of Jean is so stale that she is able to shrug it off lightly, and at times she pities him in her way, but never without a certain sense of triumph. Gabrielle feels only the most superficial remorse because she wholly discredits his pain. She understands that he has mistaken feelings of ownership and mastery for love, while Jean is unable to draw this distinction.

“Gabrielle” is a psychological thriller in the classic sense, heavy on dialogue and essentially devoid of violence; as Jean and his wife Gabrielle orbit each other with murderous looks, they are plainly incapable of making any physical contact. Fabio Vacci‘s dissonant, jarring score and the film’s baroque touches (overt camera maneuvering, switches between color and black-and-white, intermittent use of onscreen text in place of dialogue) are a bit overwrought at times, but Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory are graceful enough actors to legitimize Chereau’s petit mal spasms of indulgence. Conversely, Chereau frequently proves himself a wizard of subtlety: some of the most astonishingly tense and unnerving scenes depict the many servants wordlessly performing mundane duties–unlacing Gabrielle’s corset, making soup, drying dishes. As the eyes and ears of the house, the maids are a source of terror for Jean; their every movement, he fears, threatens to expose him to the world as a cuckold and failure. In the end, Jean doesn’t need the maids’ help, succumbing to his worst nightmare by publicly exposing his primal grief to a roomful of friends as they writhe agape in embarrassment.

In Conrad’s story, every sentence is a sort of maze: oozing with symbolism, each clause is a tongue-in-cheek reversal of the previous, such that the overall effect is too paradoxical to be understood as mere sarcasm. That Patrice Chereau has managed to lug Conrad’s bulky and capricious prose style onto the big screen is quite stunning. Few screen adaptations can be described as true homages, but “Gabrielle” fits the bill in its lushly disturbing splendor.

[Leah Churner is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]

A scene from Patrice Chereau’s “Gabrielle.” Image courtesy of IFC Films.

Take 2
By Jeff Reichert

About as exhilarating a “period” film as we’re likely to see this year, “Gabrielle” gleefully and successfully plays a bait-and-switch game with its core audience. Gray-hairs who wait anxiously for the next cinematic missive from the fin de siecle might find themselves a little stunned by Chereau’s formal interventions, but sturdy, tortured performances from Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert should keep them from outright revolt. This daring opens possibilities for the opposite end of the spectrum–one hopes that the surly youth of America can find their way past the corsets and crockery to one of 2006’s more radical works. “Gabrielle” reminds not so much of that oft-derided (more for the endless, poor imitations than the films themselves) works of Merchant Ivory, but of their logical next step as represented by Arnaud Desplechin‘s “Esther Kahn,” Olivier Assayas‘s “Les Destinees,” perhaps even Raul Ruiz‘s “Time Regained” or Terrence Malick‘s “The New World“–attempts to reckon with an earlier historical moment and bring it crashing back into dialogue with our own.

If “Gabrielle” feels a touch airless, its hermeticism is by design and more than compensated for by the overall worth of Chereau’s project of historical recuperation. Though set about a century earlier, and filled with titles, jarring shifts from color to black-and-white, and a discomfiting score, “Gabrielle”‘s pas de deux may not, after all is said and done, be too far distant from its predecessor, the criminally overlooked “Son frere.” Both focus themselves largely on two characters trying to negotiate the big knotty questions of relating to another person close in genetics (“Son frere”) or geography (“Gabrielle”) from positions of highly limited awareness of the other’s thoughts and character. “Son frere” is the more openly emotive and cathartic of the pair, but perhaps Chereau wisely lets his period define his terms–though our story ends on a sour note, what kind of liberation can “Gabrielle”‘s milieu really offer its beleaguered Jean Hervey besides flight and solitude?

[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed by Magnolia Pictures.]

Take 3
By James Crawford

If most period dramas are symphonies–bombastic, hulking, and festooned with all manner of blowsy ornamentation–then “Gabrielle” is a chamber piece–subtle, agile, and beautifully reduced to its most essential elements. There’s something ineffably musical about Patrice Chereau’s film, the way it crescendos to heights of raw, unbearable anger and then dwindles down to lulls of humming, delicious angst; how it modulates between its two lead actors, allowing them each assume control of its motifs in turn. And as much as anyone can wax poetic about the film’s unorthodox visual palette, or complex engagement with issues of literary adaptation, all such considerations are rendered moot. “Gabrielle” begins and ends with the performances of its two stars: Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Gregory, whose relationship most closely resembles a Richard Strauss opera–darkly discordant and vibrating with palpable torment. Huppert is alternately steely, vulnerable, vindictive, and kind; Greggory for his part perfectly adapts to be her foil. Watching their interplay as each actor fluidly, organically, attains and cedes power, is as watching quicksilver.

In “Gabrielle,” Patrice Chereau does something that few directors would be willing to do: he cedes absolute control to his actors. For every single aspect of the film is not just attuned but completely subordinated and subservient to Huppert and Pascal. They form “Gabrielle”‘s gravitational center, as languid socialites and terrified servants revolve, circumspect and irrelevant, around them. During his party scenes Chereau also throws his camera into orbit around them, such that, during the dizzying swash and buckle of socialites verbally jousting, space itself becomes momentarily unhinged. Then the film comes down and zeroes in on the disintegrating relationship, and its best moments are its non-moments. When Huppert finally–savagely–divulges the identity of her lover, Greggory nonchalantly glosses over it, as though the shock of discovery had temporarily rendered him deaf. The conversations continue, but as will all break-ups, nothing said makes any real difference, and the two find themselves in an inescapable cul-de-sac of their own mutual loathing. As a portrait of disconnect between two people, “Gabrielle” is as emotionally complex and unerringly real as Jean-Luc Godard‘s “Contempt.”

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]

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