Over the decades, French films have meant different things to the American audience. For a long time they were ooh-la-la, saucier, more worldly than their robust but prim Hollywood counterparts. Then, when movies became films, they were the heart (François Truffaut) and the brains (Jean-Luc Godard) of international cinema in its glory days. Then there were the boulevard comedies, like La Cage aux Folles and Three Men and a Baby, that got remade by Hollywood. After that they retreated into austerity, into the perfunctory embrace of minimalism. And now... well, frankly, now French films are hardly a blip on Americans' cultural radar, so remote from our concerns that we didn't even realize we were ignoring them.
For a reminder that French cinema ain't dead yet, Patrice Chéreau's Gabrielle arrives just in time: July 14, Bastille Day, commemorating the start of the French Republic. (Two other French films, Laurent Cantet's Heading South and François Ozon's Time to Leave, have their U.S. theatrical premieres this month as well, but, entre nous, you can skip them.) Based on Joseph Conrad's story The Return, the film, written by Chéreau and Anne-Louise Trividic, concentrates the anguish and ego-busting of marital life into a few days in the lives of two people: Jean (Pascal Greggory) and Gabrielle (Isabelle Huppert).
Jean, a bourgeois gent in early 20th century Paris, has just returned to his baronial home from a business trip. He is satisfied with his position in society and with himself: "Friends say I have the cold stare of achievement." (Jeez, what do his enemies say?) He has been married for 10 years to a woman "well bred and intelligent." She has won the approval of his circle. "Friends said I was very much in love, and I said so myself." (He enjoys hearing other people talk about him nearly as much as he enjoys talking about himself.) But his marriage was more in the nature of a business arrangement something between a merger and an acquisition. "I love her as a collector does his most prized object," he tells us. "Once acquired, it becomes all he lives for."
Entering their bedroom, he sees a letter addressed to him from his wife. Perplexed and apprehensive, he searches for his spectacles, pours himself a drink, starts to read the note she is leaving him, of course drops his glass and cuts his hand. "It may seem terrible and mad," the letter concludes. "It is terrible and right. Forgive me, Gabrielle."
He is astonished. There was no hint of her restlessness, none that he could detect. The stiff elegance with which he has carried himself droops in defeat. Jean's belief in his ownership of Gabrielle was the foundation of his comfortable view of life, his complacency and, as he perhaps now realizes, his self-deception. (Which makes the viewer question the acuity of his observations about friends and status.)
Surprise No. 1: she walked out. Surprise No. 2: she comes back, leaving her lover to live with the man she left and humiliated.
If Jean was devastated by her departure, he is disappointed at her return. "You, who always know the right thing to do, but here you come back, the ink still fresh." His feelings, such as he has, often take second place to his status. Now he considers how he will look to the friends whose esteem he has courted. "If at least you had died," he tells her, "I would have been offered condolences and known how to reply. But no, you come back." His eloquence revs into fury: "My wife's a monster, and everyone will think me a fool." Immediate he reproaches himself, not for insulting her, but because his anger has provoked him to utter a platitude.
For a moment Jean tires of spouting aphorisms and spitting venom; he offers her a glass of water. As an oenophile might hold a sip of claret in his mouth, testing its taste, Jean lets his mind race through the most demeaning possibilities, entertaining worst-case scenarios. He tries flattery, complimenting Gabrielle as he might a statue: "Your neck has such a lovely blush when you're nervous. Your skin reflects your every thought. I can trace your life in each blue vein. They're highly visible, even the blood pulsing through them. ... The blood in your temples appealed to me." (The observation is true also of Huppert. This great actress does suggest ivory with a pinkish tinge.)
Most of this awkward time she has been quiet, with a dull gaze that harbors reproach, for him or herself or both. At one point she touches her dark shirt to brush off something we can't quite see is it her chagrin, her defeat, the evidence of her lover's passion? Then, Jean plays the gentleman and makes a fatal mistake. He says, "I forgive you." And she explodes in a derisive giggle. Even more than the insult, he senses the threat. "Then this letter is not the worst of it?" he asks, and she replies, like a death sentence: "The worst is my coming back."
That was the first third of this marital-arts melodrama. Gabrielle runs barely more than 80 mins., yet it superbly distills two lives, two attitudes, that should stir uneasy reflections in most adults. The feelings of being caged, compromised, desperate for the freedom of anything-but-this or, for that matter, of being betrayed, and then having to play the reasonable party to someone whose love has withered or never existed are not limited to Jean and his wife.
In the code of romantic drama, the two characters in Gabrielle may seem divided with almost Manichean simplicity: he is the brain, she the heart and other organs. But for all Jean's powers of analysis, he's a fool for thinking he understands his wife. And though he's the chatty one, she has an arsenal of ways to hurt him: describing her lover's body, for instance, in intimate terms she may never have used with him, and invidiously comparing Jean to her lover. ("The thought of your sperm inside me is unbearable," she says. "But not his," Jean proposes, and she shakes her head no.) She also confesses, indeed boasts of, the misery of her married life. She says she was happy only two times: first when she fell in love and found passion with another man, and then when she wrote her kiss-off letter to Jean. Hatred, and a momentary freedom from the man who has caged her, could be as erotic as the furtive moments spent in her lover's embrace.
The conventional response would be to throw the woman out. But Jean has so lived for the purring gentilities of convention that he cannot face life his social life, that is, inextricable from his sense of self without Gabrielle. So they... well, they do what they do. See the movie and find out.
The other convention is that stuffy, too-sure-off-himself Jean cannot be a figure of sympathy. What he thinks of as a liberated admiration for his wife is reductively possessive and objectifying. Surely he deserves his comeuppance. Yet he is what he is, and the film, while not being forthrightly on Jean's side, explains both why he was drawn to Gabrielle and why he wants to stay with her. It considers a couple of possibilities: that her perfidy has awoken him to her humanness ("You married a woman I'm not," she says, "that's all"); and that such a person, whether or not she despises him, is worth keeping around as a challenge to his newfound love, or as a vessel for his revenge. She's worth fighting for, or fighting with.
I love Gabrielle for the acid pleasure it gave me, for the eloquence of its characters discomfort, for the brute delicacy of its direction (shifting seamlessly between courtship and bitterness, between black-and-white and color) and especially for the beautiful performances of Huppert and Greggory: she the queen for 30 years of serious French film, he the stage actor proving he knows how to pitch an emotion so the camera just catches it. Chéreau, a distinguished director for the stage as well as for film Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train and Intimacy being his movies that are best-known in North America sets the debate of Jean and Gabrielle as a battle between theater (declaiming speeches) and film (imparting emotions). At the end, you'll see who won.
I also cherish the film for the grace it summons in approaching its subject: thinking about feelings. People do this all the time it cues our sweetest and most melancholy moods but films don't do it nearly enough. Gabrielle, like Closer and oh, Broadcast News, shows the art and pleasure in talking out one's passions, grudges and inadequacies.
Amid the more obvious pleasures of American blockbusters, don't miss this suave summer treat. Gabrielle is as refreshing as a gulp of absinthe, as cool on the neck as a guillotine's blade.