"Gabrielle": Intimacy, All That Matters By Esin Kücüktepepinar

in 62th Venice International Film Festival

by Esin Kücüktepepinar

In Patrice Chereau’s latest film Gabrielle, we are given an analytical, yet somewhat distant portrait of a marriage facing an existential crisis, caused by the couple’s lack of ‘intimacy’. Chereau’s overwrought period melodrama is based on Joseph Conrad’s short story The Return, and casts Isabelle Huppert and Pascal Greggory as a wealthy married couple in Paris, 1912. Although the movie’s title, Gabrielle, alerts us to the fact that the woman’s point of view is of central importance, nevertheless, the movie still manages to successfully convey both the wife and the husband’s viewpoints. In his study of a painful confrontation between husband and wife, Chereau manages to deliver almost every stage that a marriage could go through: anger, frustration, strange passions, and all in 90 minutes of screen time. Although it seems obvious that Chereau feels both passionate and intimate towards his story, and tries to convey these feelings in a way that makes such feelings universal, he still, nevertheless, has made a film without a soul and therefore this passion and intimacy is not conveyed, despite many impressive stylistic elements.

Gabrielle (Huppert) and Jean (Greggory) carry on their stable, 10 years marriage. This is a couple that you could almost call ‘sterile’, since there is no sex in their marriage, and they live passionless lives. They are wealthy and make sure that they enjoy the pleasures this allows: they throw parties; they run an efficient household; and they are popular amongst their friends. One evening, the husband, a successful businessman, arrives back home, unaware of the surprise that awaits him. There, on his bedroom table, is a letter from his wife, confessing that she has left him for another man and won’t be returning. She does return, actually within hours. But she has no desire at that point to explain her return. Later, with painful words, we hear that she returned because she couldn’t find love. Divine dilemma, indeed.

Both a film and stage director, Patrice Chereau has never come so close to theatricality in his filmmaking as he has with Gabrielle. It’s not just that the film is written like a play and the script is structured as a classical three-act piece, complete with chapter headings; but also because he has told a story in one central location and with only two main actors. This limited ‘area’ creates a challenge for Chereau, but he expertly directs the actors and the camera angles. At the start, Chereau examines the fall-out of the traumatic break-up with claustrophobic intensity, painting the movie with a depressing beauty and marvellous tones like those seen in Dega’s paintings, much as Conrad himself does when he tells of “the impenetrable and polished discretions of closed doors and curtained windows” in his novel. Chereau’s visual approach perfectly captures the sense that all the glow of life that Gabrielle and Jean have been living within the house, is only a mirror of the outside world. But this film’s qualities and flaws are born from the same source: you feel that this strong visual style comes to an end with too much effort and theatrical dialogues, so that, one might not find it easy to penetrate the story.

So, it’s clear that Gabrielle is an existential tragedy and social commentary rather than a bourgeois melodrama. Eventually, the movie turns out to be all about ‘leaving’. Once she leaves the house and then comes back, the question of ‘who comes next?’ arises. With this confrontation, the husband believes that he has lost all points of reference and that his existence is based purely on social convenience. Gabrielle on the other hand, feels the opposite. She cracks up at the beginning through despair, boredom and shame and then rebuilds herself to take control of her destiny. So what about the man? As the married couple never settle their personal scores in the movie, the man finds his ‘salvation’ in leaving (or escaping from) the house, the place that he has always assumed was his ‘castle’, and the place that’s also a symbol for their relationship. In the end, Patrice Chereau successfully conveys the impact of this existential tragedy by creating this incongruous freedom for his protagonists.