4 stars (out of four)
Nothing cuts the heart like a love in ruins, especially when the revelation comes without warning.
Patrice Chereau's "Gabrielle" is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, "The Return," about a marriage that falls apart, disastrously, when the husband discovers a letter from his wife, telling him bluntly that she is leaving him for another man--and the wife then returns, hoping to retrieve the note before he finds it.
Husband and wife, upper-class couple Jean and Gabrielle Hervey, are played, to perfection, by two of France's premier film actors: Pascal Greggory and Isabelle Huppert. The setting is Paris in the Belle Epoque year of 1912, a gold, silk and brocade world of seemingly impeccable comfort. Jean is an arrogant, vain upper-class businessman, totally confident--until he reads the letter--of his comfortable life and his 10-year marriage to an ideal wife. Gabrielle, who has acclimated herself to an eventually loveless marriage, has now made gestures toward freedom and a new life that she partly regrets: having a secret affair with a man whom her husband detests and making an attempt at separation that, mysteriously, she tries to reverse at the last moment.
In an accident of timing, Jean returned home and found the confession sooner than Gabrielle expected--and he is shattered, like the wine glass that he drops as he reads the letter. (The film switches from black-and-white to color at the moment of revelation.)
When Gabrielle returns, she seems, despite everything, more whole and strong than her husband. The wounded Jean condescends to her, then rails and screams. She watches calmly, quietly telling him the truths that she had kept to herself, destroying him further. For the rest of that evening, right through another of the intellectual, high-society soirees for which the couple are noted--attended by the wife's lover, a fleshy and acerbic editor/critic (Thierry Hancisse) whose pretentious journal is supported by Jean--the couple talk, argue and vivisect their "perfect marriage."
Around them, what seems almost a ballet company of efficient servants creates a facade of control while, behind closed doors and occasionally outside them, rage keeps mounting, the crisis worsening, the terrible next day drawing nearer and nearer.
It's not the kind of story you expect from Conrad, the masterly psychological adventure novelist of "Lord Jim," "Nostromo" and "Heart of Darkness." But it's in line with the fervid, piercing drama that Chereau and co-writer Anne Louise Trividic have created together in recent films like "Intimacy" (2001), emulating the chamber film dramas of Ingmar Bergman. In a way, this film is Chereau's version of "Scenes from a Marriage," and, even if Bergman proves inimitable, "Gabrielle" has a theatrical brilliance and emotional ferocity that at least suggest the master.
Huppert, that consummate, brave actress who, like Gerard Depardieu, has been a dominant face in French film since the early `70s, has the more difficult role here. The wife is mostly an offstage character in Conrad's story, which is told from the husband's viewpoint. Chereau and Trividic (and Huppert) have to fill in the gaps. Not surprisingly, they make her the stronger of the pair and suggest that she was both right to leave and right to return. (The editor is both a smart voluptuary and an irritating, selfish creep.)
Greggory, by contrast, gives a performance that's at first artificial and stylized in a way that suggests Jean's upper-class snobbery and self-regard--but then turns ravaged and naked as he falls apart. Greggory keeps exploding, while Huppert opens herself up with a melancholy glance or a sudden harsh burst of truth. Complementing each other with savagery and grace, they emotionally switch the female and male personae of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson as the anguished wife and cool, hurtful husband of Bergman's "Scenes."
If all this potent drama recalls Bergman, the beautifully articulated staging and setting suggest that master of operatic social-sexual drama, Luchino Visconti ("The Leopard"). Chereau is no new Bergman or Visconti. But who is? Yet, following his cinematic models and his genius literary source Conrad, he gives us a chamber drama fitted to the radiant talents of his two great actors. As "Gabrielle" opens up a vein of terror and eroticism, Chereau lets shafts of cold sunlight illuminate the dark corners in the lives and world of this furiously disintegrating couple.
Directed by Patrice Chereau; written by Chereau and Anne-Louise Trividic (based on "The Return" by Joseph Conrad); cinematography by Eric Gautier; edited by Francois Gedigier; production designed by Olivier Radot; music by Fabio Vacchi; produced by Joseph Strub, Serge Catoire, Ferdinanda Frangipane. In French, with English subtitles. An IFC First Take Films release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. Running time: 1:30. No MPAA rating (Adult: nudity, sensuality, language, mature themes).
Gabrielle Hervey - Isabelle Huppert
Jean Hervey - Pascal Greggory
Yvonne - Claudia Coli
The Editor in Chief - Thierry Hancisse
Madeleine - Chantal Neuwirth
The Consul - Rinaldo RoccoCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times