Paris in July is a good opportunity to explore French films. I’ve watched a few in the past weeks. Here’s one that I’d like to write about, Gabrielle (2005). I found it on Kanopy, free streaming if you have a library card.
Language here makes an interesting transference. The film Gabrielle is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novella entitled The Return. Polish-born Conrad wrote it in English (available online here.) The end credits of the film note that the script is based on the French version Le Retour, translated by Georges Jean-Aubry. Screenplay co=written by director Patrice Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic. The title is changed to Gabrielle. Lastly, the literary is transposed into the visual form.
Isabelle Huppert (Things to Come, 2016)) and Pascal Greggory (La Vie en Rose, 2007) bring to the screen expert performance of a marriage in dissolution. Knotted ten years in a loveless marital relationship, the high society couple Gabrielle (Huppert) and Jean (Greggory) Hervey, a self-assured businessman and newspaper financier, keep up appearances by throwing lavish dinner parties in 1912 Paris.
They entertain no less than fifty of their friends and acquaintances every week in their mansion served by numerous maids. Interestingly, no butler or footmen. The film won Best Production Design and Best Costume Design César Awards in 2006. A visually gorgeous setting, especially at the dinner table with guests.
In ironic contrast to the aesthetic beauty and richness of interior design, Jean and Gabrielle are impoverished in their passion for each other. Ten years ago, Jean claimed a trophy wife. In his voiceover narrative, Gabrielle is “well bred and intelligent… no ordinary woman. I love her as a collector does his most prized item.”
Camera work is captivating. Director Patrice Chéreau uses mirrors around the house to capture his characters in psychological reflections. Stylistically, he adopts two visual modes on screen, interchanging colour with black and white to juxtapose present reality with memory or imaginary scenario. Interesting is that in a film with the title of the female character, the wife, the voiceover narrator and point of view is the husband’s, conveying subliminally who holds the control of the relationship. Throughout, a film exudes with realism and at times, a touch of Hitchcockian suspense. Occasionally, large written words are flashed on screen like silent movies, a whimsical stroke that well serves as comic relief.
The tipping point crashes down when Jean comes home one day to find a note left by Gabrielle saying she has left him with another man. The short note is like a bombshell to Jean, for he hasn’t noticed any issue with their marriage. His immediate concern is how this will look in front of his servants and in society? And there’s a Thursday dinner party coming up.
His devastation is short however, for in just a few hours, Gabrielle returns. On the surface, her return seems to bring back the status quo, but it only rings in the death knell of a dissipating marriage. Huppert and Greggory bring out their characters’ boiling psychological turmoil and relational conflicts to the surface expertly; the intense emotional transactions in their dialogues are rare in today’s movies. These lines follow Jean’s questioning of his wife:
Gabrielle: When I decided to go to him, I wrote the note.
Jean: So you saw a lot of him? Then this letter is not the worst of it?
Gabrielle: The worst is my coming back.
Jean, the smug and successful businessman assures himself that ‘the law is on my side.’ It’s only Gabrielle who suffers the more damage if she chooses to leave. But of course, Gabrielle cares more for finding true love than fame or fortune. Anna Karenina comes to mind. As well, the power imbalance in their relationship reminds me of the tragic heroine Isabel Archer in Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady.
The very literary rendition of the film makes quotable quotes out of many verbal exchanges and the voiceover narrative throughout the film. Why is appearance the main concern for Jean to start with? Because the society people coming to their home every week are “men and women who fear emotion and failure more than fire, war, or fatal disease.”
The twist at the final scene see a change come to Jean when Gabrielle, with a passive-aggressive undercurrent, offers her physical body unreservedly to Jean only to let him see intimacy doesn’t mean love, and without which, all is meaningless. He breaks away from her suddenly, staggers down the stairs and stumbles out of the house like a man gone mad. At the risk of leaving any spoilers, for this is after all a classic written in the late 19th century, I’m sure this can be excused: the last words flashed on the screen are the exact three words that end Conrad’s story.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
Other French films reviewed on Ripple Effects: