[Note: Gabrielle was originally seen at the 2005 Toronto film festival; this review was posted in the appropriate festival thread on 09/19/05.]
*A 2006 U.S. Release*
There arent many filmmakers in the world today who capture the human body as well as Patrice Chreau. His French compatriot Claire Denis would certainly qualify as one who does, but comparably, she is more keen on its rhythmic contortions than its structure, which is Chreau's speciality. His brooding and angular close-ups dont merely serve as stylistic tics, but also as channels to elicit the most unfeigned of emotions. And in order to accomplish this task, hes employed such specimens as Kerry Fox, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Bruno Todeschini, Vincent Perez, Pascal Greggory etc. in his films -- all lanky, physical performers, willing to expose themselves literally and metaphorically. Chreaus previous two features, Intimacy (2001) and Son Frre (2003) -- both remarkable and devastating in their own ways -- have provided him with ample opportunities. His silent, single take in the latter which involves Bruno Todeschinis body being shaved for an operation is one of the most heart-wrenching in modern cinema.
Chreau, along with being an actor and director of films, is also very closely involved with theater, a liaison that's quite apparent in his latest feature, Gabrielle, an intense and powerful chamber drama adapted from "The Return," a short story by Polish-born British novelist Joseph Conrad. An extremely "theatrical" piece, Gabrielle requires much reading from the performers, while it's often punctuated by jarring intertitles and music, all on purpose for effect.
Set in the early 20th-century Paris, the film opens with a monologue from Jean Hervey (Pascal Greggory), a successful publisher whos living a life of comfort and convenience with his intellectual wife Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert). They throw lavish parties where the citys elite gather to gossip and muse about the current issues. And while that might not seem rational considering Jean's introverted personality, he's a man of habit who simply wants things to continue normally without any hassle, and that includes his loveless marriage.
But once he comes across a note written by Gabrielle, informing him that now there's another man in her life, Jeans ideal world is shattered. Not long thereafter, Gabrielle returns to him offering to play out her role in his life, which is what Jean has craved all along, but is now repulsed by it at the same time. The rest of the film brilliantly captures the changing mind-sets and emotions that Jean goes through, while often acknowledging that his wife knows him better than he does himself.
One could feel Chreau constantly pursuing the right tone and rhythm from the opening frame, and once he hits it, he expertly sustains it till the very end. Shot in scope by Eric Gautier, one of the great cinematographers in the world today, Gabrielle often switches between the most sensuous of color schemes and showdowy B&W, done to examine the shifting dynamics. (The shot which encapsulates the arrival of a gargoyle-esque Huppert early on in the film is harrowing in its intensity.) At first the 'scope format might seem like an odd choice for a claustrophobic piece, but Chreau's intent is quite possibly to accentuate the isolation of his characters in this dense, Kubrickian environment, which he accomplishes quite well.
In Conrad's short story, the female character is barely allotted a few lines, so Chreau, along with his writing partner Anne-Louise Trividic, has fleshed it out, giving the character a voice and substance. One particular sequence which enables us to see the issues from Gabrielle's perspective involves her speaking to her maid. Chreau has shot it from an oblique angle, capturing Huppert from just above her head as her face tilts. As Gabrielle exposes herself internally, the subtlety of Huppert's performance, along with Chreaus ability to envelop her emotions makes the scene one of the film's most riveting and memorable.
If you're willing to play a game of nuances and gestures, then you better have the performers to do so. The undervalued Pascal Greggory delivers a complex performance, while words wont do justice to yet another gem from Huppert, a stone always willing to be crafted in various ways. Gabrielle is a minor-masterpiece.
*GABRIELLE premiered at the 2005 Venice Film Festival (in-competition), where Huppert won an unprecedented "Special Award." The film will be distributed theatrically in the U.S. starting on June 12th (IFC Films).
*The English subtitled French DVD (Pal/Region 1/2) is now available from Xploited Cinema. (The U.S DVD will be issued later this year.)